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Hands-on with iRobot's Android-based robot controller: pictures

ZDNet took iRobot's new Android-based robot controller for a spin at a briefing in New York City. (Spoiler alert: nothing broke.)
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Meet iRobot's bomb control robot controller, powered by Android

NEW YORK — iRobot on Thursday unveiled a new controller for its unmanned bomb disposal and discovery robots, an app that runs on every Android tablet.

The uPoint Multi-Robot Control (MRC) system allows users to remotely view and control its line-up of robots, used by first responders, defense forces, law enforcement, and industrial customers.

And at a media briefing in New York City, ZDNet gave it for a spin.

 

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All iRobot unmanned vehicles are supported by the new controller

The uPoint MRC can connect with every existing line-up of iRobot unmanned vehicles using a number of different radios — from ultra-low frequency radio for deep tunnels, through to 4G LTE, and other custom frequencies.

iRobot's unmanned vehicles are also equipped with radio-hopping technology, allowing the robot to stay connected even in very "noisy" environments, such as disaster areas where multiple agencies use different radio frequencies for their communication systems.

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Pick up the controller, switch between robots instantly

Have multiple robots on the scene of a disaster? The uPoint MRC can switch between different robots in seconds, by simply tapping the screen a couple of times.

The virtual joystick allows the operator to touch and drag anywhere within the video feed to steer the robot. It also offers a cruise-control mode, the so-called "vector drive," to hold the robot's direction.

About 6,000 of these iRobot unmanned vehicles are deployed worldwide, the company said. The U.S. government, foreign militaries, and public safety units all own devices. They are also used in the industrial sector, such as in Japan's Fukushima nuclear reactor clean-up effort.

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So simple to use, a video gamer would get up-to-speed in minutes

The app is relatively simple to use, but comprehensive in features. You can remotely control the speed of the robot, its claws, and its various cameras.

The controller app also utilizes a number of different technologies, including Android's photo gallery for robot camera recording, and an open cloud access, allowing its users to upload to a number of personal, private, or even public clouds. (And yes, you can post those bomb disposal photos to Facebook, if you wish.)

It's surprisingly easy to use, and intuitive. Any experienced video games player will no doubt pick up the app and whizz the robot around in a matter of minutes. iRobot says user experience is at the forefront of the app's design.

The controller app runs on almost any Android tablet, allowing bring-your-own-device (BYOD) users to simply download and the app. Updates will be provided over time, with a continuous stream of new features, updates, and improvements.

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Virtual joysticks, data sharing, remote-task execution

You name it, the uPoint MRC app pretty much has it. Not only can you run tasks remotely from the device, you can also share that data with observers, which don't have to own an Android device. Data can be shared through private clouds and other cloud-based services, so different teams can also see what they need to know. This data, gathered from the various customizable sensors on the robot, can be used in emergency response situations and other industrial uses.

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The controller that does a whole lot more than just 'control'

The main display is the video camera mounted on the robot of choice. You can also select different cameras, and gather data from the various sensors on the robot.

You can manipulate the robot, such as its arms, claws, and cameras — among other features — by simply tapping the area of the robot on the Android display and sliding it to the desired location. It's granular controls give the user a very wide range of robot manipulations, making it ideal for tight spaces or complex tasks, like opening doors, or defusing improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

It also comes with a map interface, so the user can navigate from a birds-eye view. Building schematics and inside-mapping is also slated to land in the future. If the robot is traveling around inside or outside, it can geotag the area with its various sensors so it can remember it in the future, and also return to previous locations.

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"If you can play Angry Birds, you can operate a robot."

One of the core pain-points for users was the difficulty faced in operating the robots before. User experience and interface design was a major driver in making the robots workable and user-friendly — even if the robots' tasks were on the scale of danger.

"If you can play Angry Birds, you can operate a robot," iRobot's Orin Hoffman said at the New York preview of the uPoint MRC.

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Although about a half-year away, iRobot owners get the controller free

iRobot funnels a huge amount of its profits back into research and development (R&D). Although the robot manufacturer did not say how much it spent on developing the uPoint MRC controller, customers will receive the Android package with the robots.

And because it's Android, the company said, a lot more can be done with it. Facial and object recognition is also slated to land in the future.

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