Conference Attendees Stalked by Helper Robots

Following bots are leading the pack at a robotics innovation showcase this week

At this moment, engineers from around the world are in Boston being trailed quietly by robots. Far from being sinister, these various automatons are spending a three-day conference showing off to developers — and eager investors — just how helpful their shadowing habits can be.

Now in its tenth year, RoboBusiness is an international executive-level robotics event that includes product showcases, lectures, and discussions; its stated goal is to connect engineers, developers, and investors in order to “accelerate the growth of the industry.” The conference kicked off its robo-centric events in Boston’s Hynes Convention Center on Wednesday, Oct. 15, and is displaying its innovative helper machines through Oct. 17.


A popular trend at this year’s event involves high-tech robots which are able, not unlike beloved ‘service droids’ of science fiction, to keenly follow users around and otherwise navigate their environs while performing simple tasks. With its blue eyes and goofy stance, Five Elements Robotics’ Budgee has quickly become a crowd favorite, and was described by Gigaom as “literally a basket on wheels that uses sensors to follow you wherever you go and prevent itself from running into walls or toppling off cliffs.” The “friendly robot assistant” weighs only 20 pounds — and can easily be folded up and stored in the truck of a car with room to spare — but can follow elderly, disabled, and otherwise over-burdened users with up to 50 pounds of cargo at a top speed of 2.4 mph for 10 hours per charge.


Budgee is designed to be a pleasant companion, too; it can let users know with a customize-able message if they’re walking too fast, has adjustable eye colors, and was “inspired by my daughter’s sock puppets,” Five Elements CEO Wendy Roberts tells Wired. Budgee’s “ears” are equipped with sonar sensors, allowing it to follow a user around. After clipping a component somewhere on their person, a user can set the distance from which Budgee trails them with the robot’s settings app. Roberts currently hopes to make the robobuddy available in January of next year for $1,400.


Another fan-favorite follower is AirDog, which also requires users to wear a “leash” to keep the bot close behind. Designed to support a GoPro camera, AirDog is an auto-follow drone which can tail its owner’s twists, turns, jumps, and tricks from up to 1000 feet high and at a top speed of 40pmh. The “AirLeash” tracker and control gadget (which can be worn on a helmet or wrist) connects with AirDog wirelessly, keeping the wearer in the camera’s view at all times, while AirDog’s built-in sensors ensure smooth captured footage. Achieving this high-demand following function was a major feat, AirDog’s creator’s explain: “[we] spent countless caffeine-fueled hours hacking intelligent flight code algorithms,” the team’s Kickstarter page admits. “The result is functionality that allows AirDog to follow you while you’re riding down the slope or flipping around on a halfpipe.”


Plenty of robots at the conference, however, are fully prepared — and designed — to go it alone without a human leader. HV-100, aka “Harvey,” uses LED sensors to follow taped patterns and paths on the floors of industrial nurseries, where it was designed to move plants around. As Harvest Automation co-founder and COO Charles Grinnell explains to Wired, Harvey also uses a LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensor to detect and avoid obstacles; the 100 Harvey models already working in US nurseries can also use their LIDAR, however, to find humans and follow them, helpfully lending a hand.


On Thursday, recipients of the RoboBusiness Game Changer Awards were announced, recognizing technical accomplishments in robotics as rated according to “standout attributes, design, functionality, benefit to robotics and impact within its primary application area.” In the “Data Collection Platform” categoy, the tough-looking Kingfisher unmanned surface vessel took top honors, and was designed as battery-operated, research and prototyping robotic boat. As TechVibes reported, the award-winner is “equipped with a sensor station, an onboard Atom PC, electric thrusters, GPS, wifi radio, and semi-planing hulls, [and] serves as a marine research platform as well as a remote survey system for bathymetric and hydrometric data collection.” Other Game Changer winners included Kairos Autonomi‘s Uomo (Autonomous Navigation) and Andrew Alliance’s Automated Pipetting Robot (Industrial Productivity).


As Wired reported, Budgee, AirDog and Harvey will be on display at the private show through Friday alongside robots and related innovated tech from 80 other companies. Rich Erb, general manager of show-organizer Robotics Trends Media Group, noted that the increase in robot affordability had led show attendance to triple over the past three years. In 2011, he told Wired, there were 300 attendees of the show, while this year’s conference had included more than 1,000 registrees from 22 countries.


Clear Path Robotics, Five Elements Robotics, Harvest Automation, AirDog