Robot control: There's an app for that

Efforts are underway to build robotics smartphone applications.
Written by Bob Violino, Contributor

A few robotics vendors are already leveraging smartphones for some rudimentary controls. For instance, an iRobot Roomba smartphone app allows you to set a start time, change the number of cycles, and more. (Image: Roomba)

You can use your smartphone to send and receive email, take pictures, play games, check the weather and stocks, get directions, watch videos, surf the web, and call and text people.

How about using it to control robots?

Efforts are underway to develop apps that leverage mobile devices and the cloud to manage the movement of robots.

Researchers the University of Texas have demonstrated a proof-of-concept software architecture for the cloud-­based Advanced Robotics Laboratory (CARL), which allows operators to access and control humanoid robots using any modern web browser via devices including smartphones.

The researchers demonstrated the system's feasibility and ease of use by controlling "Dreamer", a humanoid robot, from afar and enabling untrained members of the general public to take immediate control of the robot and accomplish a dual-arm manipulation task.

There are many areas of future work enabled by CARL, the researchers' report said. The current user interface is a proof of concept and can be enhanced by integrating more advanced 3D point cloud sensors and user-input devices such as a 3D mouse, joysticks, and gyroscopes on smartphones.

In the future, using CARL and cloud-based applications and services to facilitate collaboration, multiple operators will be able to control multiple robots to achieve a shared objective. "It could also take the form of multiple operators controlling different aspects of a single robot," the report said. "For example, it may be difficult for a single operator to focus both on navigating a rugged terrain and tracking a mobile target. This is analogous to how a team of operators on Earth control just two rovers on Mars."

Another research effort, at Savitribai Phule Pune University in India, has looked into robot control using an Android smartphone. Android-based phones are becoming more powerful and equipped with several accessories that are useful for robots, the report said.

The purpose of the project was to design a robot that could be controlled by a phone, leveraging powerful computational Android platforms and using Bluetooth wireless communications technology. The researchers presented a way to use a smartphone to control robots, such as moving the robots forward, backward, left, and right.

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The researchers at the university "derived simple solutions to provide a framework for building robots with very low cost but with high computation and sensing capabilities provided by the smartphone that is used as a control device".

A few robotics vendors are leveraging smartphones for some rudimentary controls, said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, a global technology analyst and advisory firm.

For instance, an iRobot Roomba smartphone app allows you to set a start time, change the number of cycles, and even tell it to go back and charge itself.

"Many robots have analog controls on them, which are hard to use and not very customizable, and you must touch the robot to change anything," Moorhead said. "Smartphone control enables control [of robots] away from the home, and the ability for the manufacturer to more easily provide variables [to] enhance the experience for the buyer."

The downsides are security issues and the need for the phone. "You don't want someone hacking in for fun and have your Roomba turn on at 3 am every morning to wake you up," Moorhead said. "Also, as more vendors move controls off the robots and onto the smartphone, if you lose it you lost the ability to control the robot."

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