Why We'll Have Robots In The Workplace Before Robots At Home

Two technology companies have decided that the world needs a robot that can help you telecommute more than it needs a robot that can deliver beer.

Suitable Technologies announced Wednesday that it will be hiring the majority of employees at another robotics company, Willow Garage. As a result, far more manpower will be put into Suitable's robotics research, and it appears that Willow Garage is essentially ceasing further development of its main product, the PR2 robot.

Suitable Technologies and Willow Garage are both started by the same founder, Scott Hassan. Suitable Technologies is best known for Beam, a remote presence robot. Beam began as Willow Garage’s Project Texai, but became such an intense project that Hassan created a separate company around it. Beam competes with several existing robot product lines that help employees "attend" company events remotely while they’re physically still at home. 

Willow Garage, on the other hand, is best known for its sophisticated personal robot, the PR2. Operating on open-source robotics technology, PR2 can flip pancakes, deliver beer to employees, and even plug itself in when it senses its battery getting low. 

Now that Suitable Technologies will be retaining Willow Garage employees, don’t expect to see any new developments with the PR2. Intricate but bulky, and priced at $400,000, the PR2 is sophisticated but not revolutionary.

Its legacy may actually be more in software than hardware. When DARPA needed to choose a standard on which to base its global robotics contest, it picked ROS, the robotics operating system Willow Garage developed with PR2 in mind, but not the PR2 itself. For the physical robot model, it chose Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot instead. 

Meanwhile, Beam is priced at $16,000 (which is still pretty steep when you realize there are remote-presence robots on the market for as low as $2,000.) And the PR2 requires extensive programming for practical use. 

In other words, the PR2 simply isn’t as close to being ready for mainstream manufacturing as Beam is. It makes sense that Hassan is more interested in putting his focus into Beam.

According to a company press release, customer support for the PR2 will still continue. However, Willow Garage will be selling its “remaining stock” of PR2 models, which makes it sound like it won’t build new models. 

I’ve reached out to Suitable Technologies for more information on just what innovations we can expect to see soon with Beam.

Photo courtesy of Suitable Technologies