Robotics company wants Rosie to find a home at USM

Rosie the robot, also known as NAO 25, relaxing on a table during her debut at USM.
Patrick Higgins / Free Press Staff
Rosie the robot, also known as NAO 25, relaxing on a table during her debut at USM.

Posted on October 22, 2012 in News
By Kirsten Sylvain, and Nathan Mooney

USM received a sales call from the future last Wednesday – at least one company’s version of it.

Aldebaran robotics sent two representatives to the USM science building for a sales demonstration on Wednesday, Oct. 17. Standing just under two feet tall, less is more when it comes to a saleswoman like Rosie the robot. Rosie and Beth Mahon came representing the French company that is working to establish a presence in the United States. Mahon is the area sales manager for most of the East coast and parts of the Midwest. Mahon warmed up the audience assembled in the sunny 5th floor of the CI^2 lab in Portland’s newly renovated science building and after tapping Rosie on the head, stepped back. The lights around Rosie’s eyes went from red to green. She arose and addressed the crowd, listing off her many functions and abilities while walking back and forth on the tabletop.

Mahon’s office contacted the USM computer science department and professor Clare Congdon helped to set up the demonstration. Rosie, also known as NAO 25, looks a bit like a toy, but is not available to the general public. This slight and expressive biped is touted as a development platform for those in the education field. Mahon noted that the robot is in over 900 schools already, including Bowdoin College, M.I.T. and Carnegie-Mellon University. Aldebaran’s company website states that the NAO is “fully programmable, open and autonomous,” which Congdon said provides a solid foundation as a tool for research.

Congdon said one potential for this open platform is the RoboCup, a collegiate robotics competition where the NAO has a one-design category, the Standard Platform league.“In this case, you’re working on developing a strategy   for a soccer player, but also issues of coordination,” said Congdon. Since all competitors use the same hardware, the competition tests a team’s ability to create an autonomous program to control their robot players.”

Despite Rosie’s very impressive rendition of the dance from Michael Jackson’s famous “Thriller” music video, the NAO’s high price tag means a tough outlook for getting one to join the USM computer science team. At $16,000 for a single unit, with discounts for educational partnerships of five robots or more, Congdon needs some serious supplemental grant money if USM wants to join the ranks of NAO owners.

She also pointed out that the NAO is particularly ill suited for some of USMs current research into “autonomous mapping of unknown terrain,” using a mapping robot that doesn’t need direct human control. A robot that walks on two legs isn’t well suited for this sort of work. “It’s not practical,” said Congdon. “It would repeatedly fall down and have to get up again.”

Congdon thought the NAO was more compelling as a potential as sistant to humans, echoing the Aldebaran webpage – “the ultimate dream of creating an artificial companion to assist humans is no longer science fiction.” A robot like the NAO 25 could call 911 or remind the elderly to take medication. With the ability to see from two high-definition cameras, facial recognition and WiFi, the NAO could perform those functions in its current state. This could be the NAO’s saving grace in any effort to bring together the resources to buy one for USM. Congdon said that agencies with grant money, like the National Science Foundation, are “especially interested in research with ‘co-robots’ right now.” Congdon maintains a realistic outlet on the diminutive robots chances- “sometimes these things never get off the ground, but I do think there’s potential for something happening at USM.”