VisitorBots - Be in Two Places at Once
VisitorBots - Be in Two Places at Once
VisitorBots are affordable, open-source telepresence robots that work with most smartphones, tablets & video chat applications.
VisitorBots are affordable, open-source telepresence robots that work with most smartphones, tablets & video chat applications. Read more
About this project
Visit with Mom from across the country. Attend meetings while on the road. Monitor a factory in Shanghai from New York. You can be in two places at once by using a telepresence robot. A telepresence (or remote presence) robot gives you a virtual presence at a remote location. Our robots use a smart phone, iPod Touch, tablet or similar device, on a specially-designed robot, to allow you to simultaneously video chat with a remote person and drive the robot around at their location. Our telepresence robots can use most any smartphone or 7-inch tablet on the robot and any computing device (desktop, laptop, phone or tablet) to control the robot.
Our Robots: RoboMetrix was founded nearly three years ago and we have spent that time developing and testing our control system, software and hardware in multiple prototypes. The result is two robots that we call VisitorBots.
VisitorBot Mini is a compact and economical robot that can be operated on the floor or on a tabletop. Using your iOS, Android or Windows phone or iPod Touch, simply place it in the robot's holder, plug in the audio cable and you’re ready to go. You can drive it on the floor to visit different areas of your home or at work to visit with colleagues. It can also be operated on a table to chat with multiple friends or to attend a meeting at work. We have used the Mini to inspect the undersides of vehicles and as a moveable, gimbaled internet camera in temporary locations, including outside in good weather. Once you have one, you will certainly find additional uses for it.
VisitorBot Max is our larger version that puts you at eye level with a seated person and allows you to view table and counter tops and many other surfaces and items of interest in a home, business, school or factory. It comes ready to use and includes a Google Nexus 7 tablet. This robot was designed to be useful in a wide variety of situations. Businesses that have telecommuters or personnel in the field can use one or more Max’s to allow them to attend office meetings and connect with their office colleagues. Businesses with offices and factories around the world can benefit by using the Max to monitor, manage and collaborate with those remote sites and potentially eliminate most travel. Schools can use the Max to allow home-bound students to attend classes and be with their friends between classes. The rest of us can use a Max to monitor our homes while we’re away, to check on pets and children after school and to check on elderly parents. Basically, with the Max you can have a virtual presence anywhere in the world where Wi-Fi is available.
What is Different about our Robots:
Simplicity – we have used existing technology, off-the shelf components where possible and eliminated what is not necessary, thus reducing cost.
Open source – we use Arduino controllers and software to lower cost and make our robots accessible to anyone who wants to modify them.
No cloud – Our robot control system doesn’t require us to maintain servers.
Versatile – the robots can be controlled via multiple video chat applications and a wide variety of smartphones, iPods and tablets.
How it Works: Our robot control system uses DTMF technology to send commands to the robot. It’s the same technology used to replace rotary phones in the 1960s and it’s what generates the tones when you press the keys on a telephone keypad. Each tone is actually a chord of two specific frequencies, so the circuits that recognize the tones can distinguish between authentic tones and voices, music or background noise. DTMF includes 16 different tone pairs, so by using at least one tone as a toggle switch, the number of functions that can be controlled by DTMF can be many multiples of 16!
When controlling the robots via Skype on a PC, you establish a normal video chat connection, then bring up the dial pad on the screen. When you press 2, the robot runs forward, 0 is stop, 8 is reverse and so on. Some numbers are programmed to be toggle switches to change motor speeds or other parameters. If you are using Skype on other devices a keypad may not be available. If one is not available, you can use a DTMF app on a smartphone or iPod touch to send commands via the microphone of the device. This method also applies to using FaceTime and any other video chat applications that don’t have a built-in keypad. We have successfully tested our robots in Pennsylvania, using an operator in Shanghai, China and found that distance has no effect on robot performance.
Each robot will be pre-programmed with software that is optimal for beginning users. However, you will also be able to download different robot software versions from our web site to adjust each robot’s behavior to fit your needs and preferences.
Why we are Here: We’re on Kickstarter to ask you to help us fund the first production run. Our own money has taken us to this stage where our prototypes are ready to manufacture, but we need you to help us purchase all of the components and services in bulk, allowing us to obtain the best pricing and the scale-up experience. We’d also like to share our robots as widely as possible to find out where and how people will use them. We hope you will back our project by selecting a pledge reward from the right side of the page. Thank you!
Prototype Development: Our goal was to design telepresence robots that are less expensive and independent of specific mobile operating systems and applications. To achieve that goal, we developed a system to control telepresence robots using the audio portion of an internet video connection. We chose the reliable, public-domain DTMF technology as the best initial approach and then designed an Arduino shield to accept and translate DTMF tones into binary signals for activating the Arduino controller.
The DTMF shield was then used to build successive prototype robots, the first three of which used an internet security camera with an audio channel, to operate the robots via the internet. We eventually decided to use a commercially-available robot base that uses tank treads instead of wheels.
The tank treads allow smooth turning on carpet or bare floors, help with straight-line tracking and with transitions between different floor types. Wooden decks were added to the tracked chassis to mount the mast and electronics and this was our test prototype for the VisitorBot Max. The exposed wiring made it easy to add components or change connections. At this point, we switched from using internet cameras to the iPod Touch, because the internet camera setup was not user-friendly and it required a PC and Internet Explorer for its control. Using the iPod Touch or any smartphone/tablet avoided that problem and offered a choice of video chat applications for controlling the robots. Charging for the tablet/phone/iPod Touch was added and after we were happy with the performance of the “wooden” version, we designed a body using black Lexan and aluminum reinforcements to arrive at our current production-ready prototype.
The VisitorBot Mini uses the same control system as the Max and was first prototyped and debugged on a robot chassis designed for hobby use. We then designed our own ABS body and sent the CAD drawings to a local contractor for laser CNC cutting. Slight improvements are constantly being made to the chassis design to make it easier to incorporate the electronics and to assemble. The design, using interlocking parts, provides strength and minimizes fasteners. There will also be louvers for the speaker, a headlight, a removable panel for programming access and of course, colors.
Manufacturing Plan: Many of the robot parts are “off-the-shelf,” meaning that we purchase them from existing vendors. Examples are the tracked base, Arduino control boards, batteries, power supplies, servos, sensors and so on. All of these parts are either from well-established vendors, are available from more than one source or we can have them made on a custom basis. There are three custom circuit boards that we designed and have manufactured by ExpressPCB. Plastic parts are designed by us and their manufacture is contracted out to a local laser CNC shop. We are planning to cut and drill aluminum parts in-house using our existing shop equipment, but if that proves inadequate, we have identified two local machine shops with the appropriate capabilities that have expressed interest in working with us.
Assembly will be done in-house primarily by the co-founders and a RoboMetrix partner. Performing our own assembly allows us to test components in place before the robots are completed and it gives us the freedom to make any necessary upgrades or corrections during the production run. Additional personnel are available on an as-needed basis for help with assembly and shipping, but we have carefully estimated what we can finish within the promised timeframe and that is reflected in the quantity limits that we have placed on the rewards. We have also set aside additional in-house space for inventory, assembly and shipping (about 550 square feet). If our Kickstarter campaign is successful, we intend to take what we have learned here, make any final design adjustments and choose a U.S. manufacturing partner.
Risks and challenges
We have built and tested multiple prototypes of the Mini and Max robots over nearly three years. Our robots are what we call “finished prototypes,” however they are not a finished consumer product. We do intend to fully support and improve these robots, but our ability to do that will depend on our success as a business. Your ability to use the robots however, does not depend on our business survival since the control is not provided through our servers, but indirectly through the video chat application you are using. Component availability is a risk, but we have sourced through established companies and contractors and carefully estimated our costs and potential future cost increases. Our ability to assemble and ship the robots within the time indicated is also a risk, but we have limited the number of units we offer in order to minimize that risk.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
The PC and Mac versions of Skype have a built-in keypad that can be used during a video chat, but the mobile versions of Skype do not. With the mobile versions, you need a separate device running a DTMF app so you can produce the tones and send them through the microphone of the mobile device you are Skyping on. For instance, if you are using an iPad to Skype, you can have the DTMF app on your phone or iPod touch and use the device to control the robot. We are planning to offer a physical device (like a small remote) to serve that purpose, as well as mobile apps that go beyond just providing DTMF tones.
You can use:
iPod Touch 4/5
iPhone 3S to 5
Nexus 4 phone
Nokia Lumia 920
and any similar device capable of running a video chat app with a front camera, a width of less than 2.75 inches (70mm) and a weight less than 7 oz.
You can use:
Google Nexus 7
other 7-inch tablets with a better-than-VGA front camera and weighing less than 12.5 oz
plus all of the devices listed for the VisitorBot Mini
We have used Skype, FaceTime, Vtok, ooVoo and Tango. All except Skype on a PC or laptop do not have a built-in keypad, so an external device (phone, iPod Touch) running a DTMF app is needed to control the robots. We are planning to offer a physical device (like a small remote) to serve that purpose, as well as mobile apps that go beyond just providing DTMF tones.
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