A robotic technology stack aimed at developers on a budget

It's a handy hexapod for the masses.

vincross-hexa.jpg

With HEXA, Vincross is taking aim at a market that founder and CEO Sun Tianqi feels has long been ignored: Independent tinkerers and developers on a budget.

Vincross, a Beijing-based robotics company, has announced a small programmable robot called HEXA. The new bot runs on MIND, an operating system built on the Linux kernel and optimized for robotics.

It's the second bit of news from Vincross in the last few months. The company was a CES 2017 Asia Innovation Award Honoree in May.

With HEXA, Vincross is taking aim at a market that founder and CEO Sun Tianqi feels has long been ignored: Independent tinkerers and developers on a budget.

"There hasn't been a single robot or platform built for the masses -- especially for those developers and innovators eager to create [new] robots," said Sun.

HEXA, which, as its name implies, is a sensor-rich, six-legged robot that resembles a crab. It's designed to be a platform and not a finished product.

"We all have this dream of what robots should be, of robots interacting with and helping humans on a daily basis," Sun said. "But the reality is, robots have a long way to go. To date, the industry has focused on single-use robots for industrial labs or household cleaning purposes or robots for children."

Sun's reference to the Roomba vacuum, which is the best-selling consumer robot of all time, is perhaps poorly chosen. iRobot has offered its own programmable platform based on the Roomba and targeting developers for some time. It's become a go-to for STEM classrooms, college robotics teams, and tinkerers in need of small mobile robots for all kinds of tasks.

Still, HEXA is a capable piece of technology. Because it has six legs, it can handle terrain that a platform like the Roomba never could. Sensors include a camera with night vision capability, two three-axis accelerometers, an infrared transmitter, and a distance-measuring sensor.

The idea is that developers can pick up one of these for about $500 and -- using Vincross's standard developer kit -- shape it into anything they'd like. Some examples on the company's website include surveying volcanos on Mars or helping save lives after earthquakes.

"The single biggest impediment to technologies like robotics and AI is that talented developers don't have ready access to the full technology stack required to engineer new products," Jenny Lee, managing director at GGV Capital said. GGV Capital recently invested in Vincross's $6 million series A round.

Vincross has chosen to launch HEXA as a Kickstarter campaign. Funded companies are doing this more and more, and it raises some issues in this case. Vincross's campaign is slick, bespeaking resources that unfunded DIY developers looking for crowdfunding can't afford. Since crowdfunding dollars are limited, that edge seems to fly in the face of the "for the masses" ethos the company is promoting.

Vincross COO Andy Xu defended the play in an email to me.

"This is a go-to-market strategy that we've seen work well, especially in the US and allows us both to distribute and market HEXA to a broader audience. We're not relying solely on this money to build our robots -- we have a full-fledged manufacturing operation set up in China, but Kickstarter's larger unit orders allow us to drive down costs to the end user."

Units ordered via Kickstarter pledges will be delivered on a rolling schedule between December and February.

There are some cool videos and project ideas on the Kickstarter page. Given the price point and functionality, I have a sense we're going to see some novel stuff built on this platform in 2018.

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