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Linux-based telepresence robot navigates autonomously

Mar 19, 2014  |  Eric Brown
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iRobot has begun shipping a Linux-based telepresence robot, featuring a 21-inch videoconferencing screen and camera, and autonomous navigation via LIDAR.

iRobot announced its Ava 500 telepresence robot last June, and says it is now shipping it in North America and Europe. We’ve seen some evidence that the 21-inch Cisco Telepresence EX60 tablet, which forms the videoconferencing “head” of the robot, runs Linux, and in 2011, Forbes said the original Ava reference design ran on a Linux-based robotics platform called Aware. Indeed, iRobot has now confirmed to us that the Ava 500 runs on embedded Linux. In fact, with its companion Cisco EX60 device, it has two Linux brains.



iRobot Ava 500 telepresence robot
(click images to enlarge)


R.bot Synergy Swan

The bad news is that, according to Engadget, the 5-foot, 5.5-inch tall robot costs a whopping $69,500, and is leased out at $2,500 per month. By comparison, a Linux-based Beam telepresence robot from Suitable Technologies starts at $16,000, and a low-end version called the Beam+ starts at $995. Russian robot developer R.bot also sells Synergy Mime and larger Synergy Swan telepresence bots that start at $250 and $500, respectively, not counting the required Android tablet.


iRobot Roomba 600

Yet, the Ava 500 brings a lot more than just its famous iRobot company branding, including advanced videoconferencing and camera technology, a big high-res screen, and autonomous navigation. The MIT spinoff produced the first consumer electronics hit with the Roomba (pictured at right) and makes much of its money selling sophisticated field robots to the U.S. military.

Like other video-conferencing systems, the Ava 500′s high price is partially offset by potential cuts in time-consuming and expensive air travel, especially for companies that do a lot of international travel. Yet, mobile telepresence systems offer an advantage over typical video-conferencing systems by letting visitors take a tour of the facilities, or step outside a meeting for a private chat.

The Ava 500 is particularly well-suited for visiting clean rooms or medical facilities where risk of contamination is an issue. Additional applications are said to include remote management, collaborative environments, manufacturing, supply chain and logistics, and the data center. Call centers, executive briefing centers, and corporate training environments were also cited.

 
Self-driving autonomy

While the Beam and other telepresence robots are typically navigated over the web or via a smartphone, this approach can prove to be troublesome for both for the visitor and the visited. The Ava 500 instead asks users to select their desired location on a map, and the robot then navigates there autonomously “without bumping into people or objects,” claims iRobot. Although the video-conferencing session can operate while mobile, hosts can also choose to turn the cameras off while the robot is shuttling around an enterprise, offering greater privacy and security.

The high price of the system is likely due in large part to the LIDAR laser, 3D imaging, and sonar technologies used to support the robot’s obstacle detection and obstacle avoidance (ODOA) system. The robot builds and maintains a map of its location, and “is programmed to be aware of destinations of interest to users,” says the company. Like a good little Roomba, the Ava 500 will automatically return to its docking station when not in use.

Once at the destination, the remote user is given some control of the Ava 500, including the ability to move and rotate the robot, adjust the screen, and tilt the camera. Currently, remote control requires an iPad Mini, which would seem to be an unnecessary limitation. The tablet’s trackpad interfaces remotely adjust the robot’s position, says the company.

No processor or memory details were supplied for the Ava 500. We do know, however, that the robot offers WiFi communications and a 6-hour battery. Its holonomic drive is said to support speeds up to one meter per second.

 
Cisco Telepresence system

The Cisco TelePresence EX60 system integrated on top of the Ava 500 provides a larger screen and better video-conferencing equipment than found on most telepresence bots. The 21.5-inch LCD display offers 1920 x 1080-pixel resolution at 16:9 aspect ratio, and provides a 1000:1 contrast ratio, 170-degree viewing angle, and 5ms response time, according to iRobot.



Cisco TelePresence EX60 system

The 2.1-megapixel video camera on the EX60 supports up to 1080p @ 30fps video, and offers a 50-degree field of view and all-glass optics. Speakers and a “full range” mic are also available.

The EX60 also provides H.323/SIP video-conferencing at up to 6Mbps point-to-point. Enterprise-grade security includes embedded encryption, secure HTTPS management, and password protection, says iRobot.

The iRobot Ava 500 Cloud Service manages the resource pool of robots, and helps users track and manage robot scheduling. The service also monitors robot health, including battery charge status, and provides error-reporting.

 
Ava 500 specifications

Partial specifications listed for the Ava 500 with Cisco Telepresence EX60 include:

  • Cisco TelePresence EX60 display:
    • 21.5-inch LCD (1920 x 1080)
    • 16:9 aspect ratio, 1000:1 contrast ratio
    • 170° viewing angle
    • 5ms response time
  • Cisco TelePresence EX60 PrecisionHD camera:
    • 1/3-in. 2.1-megapixel CMOS sensor
    • 1080p30 and 720p60 modes
    • 50° horiz. FoV
    • 0.1-infinity focal distance
    • Autofocus
    • Multicoated, all-glass optics
  • Wireless — 802.11a/g/n; supports 6Mbps H.323/SIP conferencing
  • Audio — 2x front stereo speakers; full-range mic; volume and mute buttons
  • Sensors — LIDAR; 3x 3D imagers; 3x sonars; bumper switches
  • Mobility:
    • Holonomic drive
    • 1 m/s max. speed
    • Autonomous mobility with object detection and obstacle avoidance
    • Automatic robot docking
    • Height adjustment and screen and camera tilt
  • Power:
    • Approx. 6 hours battery life
    • Autosensing power supply
    • Wall-mounted charging station with 100-240 VAC 50/60Hz
  • Other features — remote control app for iPad Mini; iRobot 500 Cloud Service for scheduling and management
  • Weight — 84.4 kg (186 lbs)
  • Dimensions — 166.4 x 57.5cm
  • Operating system — Linux

Here’s iRobot’s Ava 500 promotional video:




iRobot Ava 500 demo

 
Further information

The Ava 500, including Cisco TelePresence EX60 and charging station, starts at a reported $69,500, or $2,500 per month on lease. More information on the Ava 500 may be found at iRobot’s Ava 500 product page and more on the EX60 may be found at Cisco’s TelePresence EX60 product page and this CDW EX60 sales page.
 

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