Not long ago Bill Murvihill from Anybots invited us to test drive their QB telepresence robot. We received all the information to set up our account which involved downloading and installing a plugin for our browser and… that was it.
The interface for interacting with the Anybots QB telepresence robot loaded and we were presented with a driving mode selector, status indicators for battery power and WiFi signal strength and of course the main video window. We selected the high definition option from the video quality drop-down box clicked on the video window and started navigating, using the arrow keys on our keyboard, around the large hall the QB was located in.
From the docked position the QB robot immediately started moving forward when we pressed the forward key and we could hear a faint noise as it rolled out of the docking station and started rolling on its two-wheel base. And speaking of the base, the balancing abilities were pretty impressive even when we performed some more aggressive maneuvers while getting used with the controls. Moreover, when pushed, the robot will maintain its equilibrium returning to the initial position afterwards.
In the drive mode selector we could also find a mode to disable the feature of resuming its position however it was disabled at the time, as Bill told us. Thanks to its LIDAR type system, obstacle avoidance is another feature we were impressed with, as it is virtually impossible to crash the QB. We navigated through sometimes narrow spaces around shelves and furniture in the hall, and pretty quickly we learned that we could navigate at maximum speed without fear of hitting anything. If you try hard enough you could touch objects in the environment, however this would only happen at extremely reduced speeds so damage to the robot is highly unlikely to occur or injuries to people around it to happen.
As the robot was standing still for a few minutes or so, a small actuated support pole extended from the rolling base to help the robot preserve power. The pole could also be extended manually from the drive mode selector, leaving the robot sitting for prolonged periods of time. The QB can also be driven with the support pole extended, however the friction noise on the rolling surface is somewhat disconcerting, this feature being useful primarily for driving into the docking station.
Apart from the 5 Megapixel main camera, the robot is also equipped with a secondary camera pointing downwards to aid maneuvers in tight places or when docking, we could activate this secondary camera by pressing the Shift key on our keyboard. The image quality of the main video feed was not that impressive however we suspect some bandwidth limitations acting up at some point. Sensors onboard the QB robot include an IMU comprising a 3-axis gyroscope and accelerometer, wheel encoders and of course the LIDAR navigation system we mentioned earlier. The WiFi interface used for communication is compliant with 802.11g/n standards and the robot is equipped with two WiFi radio transceivers. If it should happen that the robot loses the WiFi signal it would automatically stop until the user logs in again, this way the robot is not lost, eliminating the risk of damage or otherwise. The robot is equipped with 3 onboard microphones that allow for picking up sound omnidirectionally, speakers and a LCD screen that displays a video feed from the webcam of the remote user that is logged on. The manually adjustable mast, extending from the rolling base, can lift the cute-faced head of the robot to heights between 0,9 and 1,8 meters, to maintain eye level with people either standing or sitting. Its 5,5 km/h top speed matches human walking speed, further enhancing interaction between the remote user and people on location. The heart of the system is an Intel Core2Duo CPU running a FreeBSD OS. The robot weights about 16 kilograms and can operate on a single charge of its 14,4 Volt Li-Ion batteries for up to 8 hours. A complete ready-to-run QB robot kit can be bought for a price just shy of 10.000 US Dollars, which includes batteries and a docking station. Additional batteries and docking stations can be bought separately, as well as a carrying case for safely transporting the robot.
As a conclusion, we could say that using the QB Robot is a joy. The system is very easy to use, as we mentioned earlier just a browser plugin being required to operate the robot from anywhere in the world. The obstacle avoidance and balancing capabilities of the robot were impressive, while the cute design provides pleasant interaction with people on location. Such a system might be beneficial for businesses and employers alike, providing great savings in terms of travelling costs, and convenience for a person that would not need to make so many trips on certain locations and then back to the office to attend meetings or such. This may be the future, one day it might not be required anymore for us to leave our homes to go to work or take stressful journeys to places we are not exactly keen on visiting.