iRobot’s robotic lawnmower was 10 years in the making

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Meet Terra, the latest product line from iRobot destined to be forever known as the “Roomba for lawns.” There are worse names, of course. After all, with the Roomba line, iRobot was able do what countless startups have tried and failed before and after — introduce a truly mainstream home robot. If the Massachusetts-based hardware company is able to do the same for yard work, it will be a truly impressive feat indeed.

Like most of what iRobot does, however, work on the lawn-mowing robot has been slow and deliberate. In a closed-door meeting with the company at CES this year, CEO Colin Angle lifted the veil off of the robot. It was a kind of grand unveiling for a party of one. But first he explained why, precisely, it had taken iRobot so long to get into the space.

After all, the Terra is far from the first product to attempt to do for lawns what the Roomba has done for floors. Honda has already entered the space, along with lesser-known names like Robomow and Worx. But iRobot has one key thing none of the competition has — 17 years of experience building and evolving the Roomba line.

Even so, Angle tells me that Terra (Codenamed: Wichita) was nearly a decade in the making, with a team of between 35 and 50 members of its R&D staff devoted solely to the new product. There are many moving parts — both figuratively and literally — required to get a product like this just right. And certainly moving outdoors on uneven surfaces with a new objective requires more than simply iterating on the Roomba team’s work. The slanted legs on trampolines have apparently proven particularly difficult for roboticists to get their brains around.

In fact, the company has been covertly testing the mower outdoors, in a fenced-off section of the company’s Bedford, Mass. parking lot that was once a battleground for its military robotics (spun off in 2016 as Endeavor Robotics). I know I’d visited the company’s HQ a few times in those intervening years and wasn’t any the wiser.

The Terra’s operations should prove familiar to anyone who has spent time with recent versions of the Roomba. The mower lives primarily on a charging dock. The first time you send it out, the mower cases the joint using iRobot’s Imprint smart mapping technology — a larger-scale version of what you’ll find on the Roomba. The vision system is more equipped for obstacles and uneven lighting situations that arise in the outdoor setting.

The top of the robot opens to reveal a small remote control so the driver can cruise it around manually the first time to help show Terra where to go. The remote can also be used later, for those who’d prefer to take it for a joy ride.

Similar to the Roomba, the system utilizes a beacon system (it ships with two). Here they’re relatively unobtrusive poles that stake into the ground, helping create virtual boundaries for yards that don’t have fences or other natural borders. The system also utilizes the same Home app as Roomba, so users can remotely monitor its progress and the like.

Terra doesn’t have a bag on board, instead relying on a mulching system like you get on most industrial mowers. The robot takes on a lawn in a much more orderly fashion than Roomba, going back and forth to stripe the lawn. The battery should be more than enough for most residential lawns, but if it runs out of juice, Terra will return to its base to charge back up and pick up where it left off.

The system is weatherproof — though if you live in a particularly cold area, if might be best to bring it in when the snow piles up. There’s also a security system on board that assures Terra can’t be used if moved from its given lawn.

Lots of details like pricing are still forthcoming. Interestingly, the robot will launch first in Germany, later this year, with a beta program launching in the U.S., so the company can continue to tweak the system.

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The Square Off chess board melds the classical with the robotic

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CES crowds can be tough — especially toward the end of the week. You’re physically and emotionally drained, and you’re pretty sure you’ve seen everything the consumer electronics world has to offer. And then something comes along to knock your socks off. Square Off was one such product, impressing the crowd at our meetup and walking away the winner of our hardware pitch-off.

The company’s first product looks like your run of the mill wooden chess board. And that’s part of the charm. Turn it on with the single button, and the system goes to work, tapping into chess AI software built by Stockfish and moving opposing pieces accordingly with an electromagnet attached to a robotic arm hidden under the board.

It’s an overused word in this space, but the effect is downright magical. It’s like playing chess against a ghost — and who hasn’t wanted to do that at some point? Players can challenge the board using 20 different difficulty levels or can play against opponents remotely, via chess.com.

Bhavya Gohil, the co-founder and CEO of Square Off creator InfiVention, told TechCrunch that the product started life as a college project aimed at creating a chess board for people with visual impairment. After a trip to Maker Faire Rome, however, its inventors recognized that the product had the potential for broader appeal.

One Kickstarter and another Indiegogo campaign later, the company had raised in excess of $600,000 for the project. After a year learning the manufacturing ropes in China, the company began shipping retail products in March of last year, launching a website the following month. In October, the product landed on Amazon, tripling sales for the holiday. All told, the company has sold 9,000 units — not bad for a chess startup charging $369 a pop. A majority of those (80 percent) have been sold in the U.S., with the remainder being sold in Europe.

In November, the company scored a seed round of $1.1 million. InfiVention is planning version 2.0 for a mid-2020 launch. That one will be more versatile, covering additional classic table-top games like checkers and backgammon. That version will be even more versatile when it’s opened up to table-top game developers looking to build their own titles into the platform via the app.

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

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Taking a stroll with Samsung’s robotic exoskeleton

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Samsung’s look but don’t touch policy left many wondering precisely how committed the company is to its new robots. On the other hand, the company was more than happy to let me take the GEMS (Gait Enhancing and Motivation System) spin.

The line includes a trio of wearable exoskeletons, the A (ankle), H (hip) and K (knee). Each serve a different set of needs and muscles, but ultimately provide the same functions: walking assistant and resistance for helping wearers improve strength and balance.

Samsung’s far from the first to tackle the market, of course. There are a number of companies with exoskeleton solutions aimed at walking support/rehabilitation and/or field assistance for physically demanding jobs. Rewalk, Ekso and SuitX have all introduced compelling solutions, and a number of automotive companies have also invested in the space.

At this stage, it’s hard to say precisely what Samsung can offer that others can’t, though certainly the company’s got plenty of money, know how and super smart employees. As with the robots, if it truly commits and invests, if could produce some really remarkable work in this space.

Having taken the hip system for a bit of a spin Samsung’s booth, I can at least say that the assistive and resistance modes do work. A rep described the resistance as feeling something akin to walking under water, and I’m hard pressed to come up with a better analogy. The assistive mode is a bit hard to pick up on at first, but is much more noticeable when walking up stairs after trying out the other mode.

Like the robots, it’s hard to know how these products will ultimately fit into the broader portfolio of a company best know for smartphones, TVs and chips. Hopefully we won’t have to wait until the next CES to find out.

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TWIICE One Exoskeleton furthers the promise of robotic mobility aids

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Few things in the world of technology can really ever be said to be “done,” and certainly exoskeletons are not among their number. They exist, but they are all works in progress, expensive, heavy, and limited. So it’s great to see this team working continuously on their TWIICE robotic wearable, improving it immensely with the guidance of motivated users.

TWIICE made its debut in 2016, and like all exoskeletons it was more promise made than promise kept. It’s a lower-half exoskeleton that supports and moves the legs of someone with limited mobility, while they support themselves on crutches. It’s far from ideal, and the rigidity and weight of systems like this make them too risky to deploy at scale for now.

But two years of refinement have made a world of difference. The exoskeleton weighs the same (which doesn’t matter since it carries its own weight), but supports heavier users while imparting more force with its motors, which have been integrated into the body itself to make it far less bulky.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the whole apparatus can now be donned and activated by the user all by herself, as Swiss former acrobat and now handcycling champion Silke Pan demonstrated in a video. She levers herself from her wheelchair into the sitting exoskeleton, attaches the fasteners on her legs and trunk, then activates the device and stands right up.

She then proceeds to climb more stairs than I’d rather attempt. She is an athlete, after all.

That kind of independence is often crucially important for the physically disabled for a multitude of reasons, and clearly achieving the capability has been a focus for the TWIICE team.

Although the exoskeleton has been worked on as a research project within the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), the plan is to spin off a startup to commercialize the tech as it approaches viability. The more they make and the more people use these devices — despite their limitations — the better future versions will be.

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