2 makers, 2 robots, 2 visions

An errand car and a ball-shaped 'bot illustrate Maker Faire's robotic diversity.

If you haven’t been to a Maker Faire, it can be hard to describe the vast and diverse array of exhibitors and events, and no set of interviews can do the event itself justice. But recent conversations with makers Scott Bergquist and Ian Bernstein do offer a decent representation of what Maker Faire is fundamentally about.

What follows are the stories of two very different robots, both of which will be in attendance (in some form) at the upcoming Maker Faire Bay Area.

The errand bot

Bergquist will be showing the Driverless Errand Car, a design concept for an autonomous vehicle system that delivers goods and runs errands. Bergquist admits that his idea is well ahead of the technologies required, but he wants people to start thinking about how society could benefit if fuel-efficient robotic vehicles were running errands without requiring human interaction. As he likes to put it, “Why drive a 4,000-pound vehicle to get a quarter-pounder at McDonalds?”

In Bergquist’s vision, these robots will do all the scut-work errands, like getting groceries or dropping a tax form off at the post office. Clearly, this would require massive infrastructure changes, such as having food distribution centers that could do order fulfillment when a ‘bot arrived. But Bergquist believes it could be done economically, because the ‘bots could travel longer distances to get their orders (since time isn’t a factor), which in turn would allow for centralized warehousing.

“Within my area, I can think of four Safeway stores that are within a 10-mile radius,” Bergquist said. “Instead, there could be just one store, which would be inconvenient to a human shopper because everybody would have to, from all directions, come over to that one store. But for a humanless, driverless device, it wouldn’t mind waiting in line to get its order. If it took it 40 minutes of waiting in line, it really wouldn’t make any difference to you. It wouldn’t make any difference to you if it made five trips a week instead of once a week. It wouldn’t feel put out by having to stop at one distribution center to pick up canned goods and then driving further to another distribution center to pick up fresh vegetables, and then driving to another facility to pick up bread.”

Another unique feature of this system is that in Bergquist’s design the vehicles run off of spring power. They would be wound up before leaving the house, and would function because they would be so much lighter than a conventional vehicle.

“My [proposed] car is rather small,” Bergquist said. “It’s a little under four-feet long and a little under two-feet wide. It’s about a meter tall. Without going into a lot of detail, for such a light vehicle, for such a limited amount of optional range, a spring-powered car could be a real no-fuel vehicle that would be extremely cheap because you wouldn’t have an electric motor; you wouldn’t have an electric battery.”

Maker Faire Bay Area will be held May 21-22 in San Mateo, Calif. Event details, exhibitor profiles, and ticket information can be found at the Maker Faire site.

A basic ball with complicated guts

SpheroIan Bernstein and his business partners will be bringing Sphero to Maker Faire. The robot, which is about the size of a baseball, rolls around, has LEDs that can turn the ‘bot thousands of different colors, is loaded with sensors, and can be controlled and programmed from iPhones, Androids and PCs.

Bernstein has no grand society-changing plans for Sphero, he just sees it as a cool platform for new applications. “We’ve had a lot of people come to us, and some of the ideas are educational,” Bernstein said. “Training centers for college or companies and also K-12 — they thought this would be kind of a cool way to teach programming. Like Arduino, you can see other projects people have made.”

Although a robotic sphere may seem simple, Bernstein says that it’s fiendishly hard to develop the underlying control software. “It’s incredibly complicated to build a ball that moves in this fashion,” he said. “We’re literally using missile-guidance-type control systems in there. We’ve consulted with people that do NASA projects. What people see is just a simple ball. So it’s minimalistic, but it’s complicated on the engineering side.” (Here’s a video of Sphero in action.)

Bernstein and his associates plan to have Sphero available for sale by the end of the year, while Bergquist’s errand-running cars are more science fiction than product at the moment. You’ll be able to meet these bots’ creators, and get a sense for how the robots work, at this month’s Maker Faire.

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