Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/09/07/robothespian_nasa_purchase/

NASA buys cutting-edge Cornish robot

To be dubbed Oooh-Arrr-2-D2, no doubt

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 7th September 2010 12:35 GMT

In a triumph for West Country technical prowess and engineering knowhow, NASA has ordered a robot made in Cornwall. Here's a vid:

Admittedly the Cornish droid - a humanoid contraption powered by compressed air and known as RoboThespian - is not intended for use in space like the mighty, 12-foot-tall Canadian "Dextre" unit or the somewhat less impressive R2 "Robonaut". Rather, the RoboThespian is intended to wow visitors at NASA's Kennedy Space Centre on Cape Canaveral in Florida.

According to the contract award announcement, the space agency will pay $108,570 for the groundbased counterpart to the space station's R2 unit. No official NASA designation other than "Life Like Robot" has so far been promulgated, but given the machine's origins something along the lines of "Ooh-Aarr 2-D2" might perhaps be in order.

The RoboThespian, produced by Penryn firm Engineered Arts, is 5'9" tall, weighs 33kg and comes with a year's warranty once installed on its base. Prospective owners should be aware that it requires both a wall socket and a supply of compressed air, as well as somewhere to plug in its Cat5 network cable and a safety barrier "to prevent contact with visitors".

Readers may also be interested to note that the RoboThespian's central "motion storage and control" brain runs on a 1.6 gig Atom processor and includes 32 GB of solid state memory. There are also a brace of 800 MHz ARM processors for "eye screen and RGB face colour control" and a further 5 multicore processors for "motion and air valve control".

Software-wise, Engineered Arts boss Will Jackson tells us:

RoboThespian is built on Gentoo Linux - we have spent three years developing the core software which we intend to release open source around Xmas this year. The software will work equally well for programming hobby and research robots - it provides an abstraction layer between hardware and high level software, as well as a method for recording and mixing motion routines, controlling text to speech, speech recognition and face recognition and other 'intelligent' modules.

The main reason for not releasing the code OS to date is the incomplete documentation - we will also hope to include a binary package for Ubuntu. We also have a virtual RoboThespian built in Blender which we use to program the real thing.

Perhaps disappointingly given Cornwall's illustrious mining history, RoboThespian is made not of tin but aluminium (chassis) and vacuum formed Polyethylene Terephthalate (body shell). Full tech specs are available here in pdf for those who'd like to know more.

Disgruntled Yank moans "Why not give the job to Disney" - feels force of West Country engineer's bitchslap

Jackson says that NASA came to Cornwall because someone from the space agency saw RoboThespian at a conference in the US and liked the look of it. The export triumph by Cornwall's cutting-edge robotic crowdpleaser industry has led to some sour grapes Stateside. Ex-NASA employee Keith Cowing, nowadays an inveterate critic of the huge, bloated agency, writes:

At a time when NASA is off developing a real (and much, much cooler) robot that will work in space (Robonaut) why not try and use something that resembles actual NASA robots to do education and public outreach? RoboThespian is manufactured overseas in the UK (Cornwall). Quite frankly, at a cost of between $54,000 to $119,000 wouldn't you think that KSC could find an American company that offers something that will fit the bill? Indeed, Disney World is an hour west of KSC in Orlando and they have lots of animatronic robots - indeed, it's their specialty.

Indeed, indeed. But Jackson is having none of it, administering a stinging bitchslap to the cross-pond carping curmudgeon. He tells the Reg:

This is a bit stupid as there is really no such thing as a US product or a UK product... Our robots use valves from Japan and Germany, motors from Switzerland and chips from the USA, Austria and China. The alloy is most likely from Australia and we have used software developers in Germany and France as well as the UK.

I guess the carping stems from some sense of entitlement to being the world's tech leader, but really it's just a simple misunderstanding of what it takes to integrate a modern hi-tech product - if you stripped the 'foreign' components out of the shuttle it wouldn't fly too well - not to mention the taking the I out of ISS.

From an industry 'protectionist' view point the best way to ensure your industry lags behind and is over-priced is to exclude the competition.

So there. And anyway, according to Jackson, "a 'bespoke' option would cost at least 10x the price... there are very few full size humanoid robots in the world and near none that you can buy off the shelf - except RoboThespian".

Some Americans at least might see this as a rare case of NASA actually giving the US taxpayers' wallets a rest and getting the job done at a low price, rather than its usual policy of buying from huge US corporations with entrenched politically protected workforces and paying prices to match. ®