Video: Check out the uBot-5 robot

Robot balances on two wheels, has two arms and may be used for elder care

A robot being developed by two graduate students at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst has mastered balancing on two wheels, has a display screen as a head and may someday take care of elderly people in their homes.

The uBot-5 robot, which is being developed by Bryan Thibodeau and Patrick Deegan, uses Microsoft's Robotics Studio software and an Intel Celeron processor.

The robot is designed to fit into a home environment and may one day act as a companion or aide to handicapped or elderly people, the developers said. The display screen on the robot's shoulders may even enable doctors or family members to see what it sees so they can remotely check on a patient that's alone in her home.

"If you're going to go into an environment that's set up for a person, you need it to be shaped like a person," said Thibodeau. "It needs to fit into their environment. We want the technology to go in the direction of being an in-house robot."

The uBot-5, so-named because it's the fifth generation of the machine, was first built to test robotic mobility and manipulation, according to Thibodeau. The robot is able to regulate its center of balance, which enables it to stay upright despite swinging its arms and moving quickly across a floor or incline.

When a robot has arms, explained Deegan, it's easier to fall over because the arm movements alter its center of mass. This robot, though, is aware of its rate of tilt and can even push itself upright from a prone position on the floor.

In a demonstration at the Microsoft Robotics Group headquarters in Seattle, Deegan used Xbox controls to maneuver the robot around the office. He noted, however, that uBot-5 can also be controlled from a laptop or the touch screen that sits where a head would be.

The touch screen has more than one function, though. The two students said since they are hoping the robot could be used for elder care someday, they designed it so the touch screen could act as a sort of portal.

For example, a woman who couldn't reach her mother by phone could access the robot through her computer, tell it to go find her mother and actually see what the robot sees. Once the mother was located, the daughter's face would appear on the screen, making it more natural for the two women to talk using the robot as the conduit.

"It seems that part of the feat of robotics will be letting them experience with their own bodies and capabilities," said Deegan. "You couldn't possibly program everything it's going to experience. It has to learn from its own experiences. It has to see that it can fall and get itself back up."

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