iPhone Robot Round-Up
Most of us carry a device in our pockets with a surprising amount of computing power and an amazing array of sensors, often including 6-axis IMUs, a GPS receiver, a compass, and a couple of high-resolution cameras. These are all things we need on our robots: sensors for perceiving the world, and brains enough to make sense of it. Consider the high-resolution touch screen, built-in rechargeable power supply, and networking capabilities, and using a mobile phone on a robot starts to make a lot of sense.
So with no further ado, here are some of the off-the-shelf iPhone- or Android-based robots on the market today.
The Romo robot from Romotive has been receiving most of the press attention in this area. It’s a cute, well-designed little robot base with tank treads for mobility, and a dock which both holds your iPhone and provides a two-way data connection. The doc can also pitch the phone up and down within a limited range, as a means of aiming the camera, or just as a way for the robot to express itself.
Software-wise, the Romo is quite sophisticated. The official app provides an adorable face and a lot of interesting games and behaviors out of the box. It also comes with a visual programming environment right on the phone that’s easy enough for kids to use. At the other end of the scale, they offer a software development kit (SDK) that lets iOS developers write their own apps, right on the metal.
Robo is available for $149, direct from Romotive or through various resellers.
The RoboMe from robotics toymaker WowWee has roughly the same degrees of freedom as Romo: a wheeled base plus head tilt. The form factor, however, is significantly different: RoboMe has a half-humanoid form, with a torso, two arms, and a head (with your iPhone as the face). The arms are posable but not motorized; the right arm contains a sensor, allowing RoboMe to respond to someone shaking its hand, for example.
RoboMe can in fact be used without an iPhone, with an animated face plate filling in. Like all WowWee robots, it has a fun personality and some interesting behaviors out of the box. But of course, our interest here is in the more sophisticated behaviors and hacking you can do when an iPhone is added. This does include a visual “trigger” software that lets you make the robot react to various sensor triggers, or things like idle time. This isn’t really programming — there are no loops or branching here — but it’s a great start, and certainly easy enough for kids. And, also like Romo, there is a developer SDK for making your own custom apps.
RoboMe is available direct for $109, or through various resellers.
Japanese toymaker Bandai released a little robotic dog called Smart Pet, which has now been brought to the U.S. under the name Tech Pet. Reviewed here, this is a cute little robot with limited degrees of freedom, but a lot of personality and opportunity for “growth,” as you might expect from the company that brought us Tomagotchi (digital pets) back in the 90’s.
While this robot is undeniably cute, it does not seem to come with an SDK or any other apps besides the official Tech Pet app. This makes it a cool toy for kids, but of limited value to the robot hobbyist; any hacking on this toy would require some reverse-engineering even to get started. Still, with units sometimes going for under $25 at Amazon, this just might be worth an impulse buy.
The SmartBot MK2 is the second generation iPhone/Android robot base from Overdrive Robotics. It’s a very utilitarian round black base that passively carries your phone (no tilt control here, as far as I can tell). This base is aimed more at robot hobbyists, with lots of extra sensors and expansion ports, and even support for an Arduino brain in place of a smartphone.
SmartBot also takes a different approach to the software: rather than a single “official” app that includes all functionality, Overdrive provides a whole suite of apps, which you can download and switch between just like any other apps on your phone. It also provides links to third-party apps written by the community. Again we see that while the other robots here are focused on providing a finished, complete robot, with hacking as almost a side note, the SmartBot is more like a blank canvas, on which (they hope) a whole ecosystem of hacks and apps will grow.
There are a handful of other entries in this market that are either not out yet, or have come and gone. Xybotyx presented a robot at CES 2012 that looked a lot like SmartBot, but as far as I can tell, their web site hasn’t been updated in over a year (and still speaks about 2012 in the future tense). Then there’s Oddwerx, a funny-looking little robot base that appears to have both wheeled and legged options, but is not out yet. I should also mention the HOVIS Genie, a high-end robot platform from Dongbu Robotics. This is a great platform (available in the U.S. here), but doesn’t really qualify for this list because you don’t use your own phone with it; only the official “Mobile Internet Device” fits neatly into its chest.
And that about wraps it up for off-the-shelf iPhone robots at the moment. If I’ve missed any, please point them out in the comment section below. Stay turned for a future blog post, in which we’ll look at iPhone and Android interfaces that let you roll your own robot, so you too can build something as cool as this.