Sphero’s RVR platform could help to knock down the barriers between professional robotics, mobile sensors, and toys. Chris Middleton reports…

The dividing lines between professional, prosumer, consumer products, and toys have been getting narrower for years, particularly when it comes to connected devices.

Some connected technologies are merely platforms for ideas. In many cases, whether something is a toy or a professional device is a factor of its application, rather than its design – and arguably, any well-designed technology should be as intuitive to use as a toy. In the world of unmanned aerial vehicles, for example, drones from the likes of China’s DJI are used by everyone from kids and hobbyists to professional photographers, broadcasters, emergency services, engineering and maintenance companies, and the military.

A drone may (or may not) have closed Gatwick Airport in the UK, but drones have certainly saved lives: in June last year, a report revealed that drones had helped to save as many as 133 people in the previous 12 months.

The same principle of a low-cost, high-spec, adaptable platform is beginning to apply to other forms of robotics, too, where price has long represented the main division between plaything and professional tool.

Robots such as SoftBank’s NAO and Pepper humanoids typically cost many thousands of pounds, and so have tended to be the preserve of robotics labs, schools, colleges, and some public-facing service roles. Meanwhile, toys that mimic superficial aspects of their design can be picked up for tens of pounds on eBay.

The underlying point is that, in non-industrial/non-vertical industry robotics, no one has really found the sweet spot between price and useful function – apart from the drone makers. Many high-end humanoid robots are impressive engineering feats with limited application, for example, while many lower-cost domestic devices add little to the home beyond being conversation pieces. (What is it actually for? Can be a surprisingly tough question for some robot makers to answer.)

Rumours abound of Amazon launching a robot, thought to be named Vesta, in the next few months. If true, this would likely be a combination of its Alexa digital assistant and some of Amazon’s home security and surveillance technologies, perhaps combined with access to content such as music, video, audiobooks, and apps.

A domestic robot that guards the home, entertains children, manages light and heat, and orders groceries isn’t a big stretch of the imagination, and could – via Amazon’s loss-leader approach to hardware – finally lower the cost of a useful connected robot. And for Amazon, of course, it would represent yet more revenue streams for its services. But would such a device really need to move around the house or have a face? In some ways, a century of sci-fi lore about intelligent robot companions has convinced us of a usefulness that isn’t so clear in the real world – at least, not when combined with exorbitant cost, physical risk, and rapid obsolescence.

But one company that’s definitely mobile, and moving in on the low-cost smart platform space, is Sphero. To date, the company has been associated with toys – as DJI once was. Since launching just eight years ago, Sphero has made a name for itself with its ‘smart ball’ robots and Star Wars tie-in BB8 and R2D2 droid toys, which can be controlled by smartphone.

But all that may change with its new Kickstarter-backed robot, RVR.

Described as an all-terrain, high torque robot, RVR is essentially a small robot car that’s ‘drivable’ and programmable out of the box – with a robust design, vector-based, closed-loop control system, and “enough torque to climb a wall”, claims Sphero. As such, it will doubtless be on Christmas lists. But it has some unusual features too, which suggest it could have many professional applications.

For one thing, RVR is fully programmable and customisable, says the company. It’s also packed with sensors and other devices: an ambient light sensor; an RGB sensor with normalising LED and focus lens; a nine-axis IMU with accelerometer, gyro, and magnetometer; infrared sensors; 10 individually addressable RGB LEDs; and high-resolution 20-pole magnetic encoders.

For another, its universal expansion port and onboard power mean that users can attach and run third-party hardware – Sphero suggests a Raspberry Pi, BBC micro:bit, or Arduino board. It’s also ‘swarmable’, allowing multiple RVRs to be connected to each other and to operate as a team.

Perhaps following DJI’s example of making the jump from toymaker to platform developer, Sphero is aware that coding and customisation are the key to any platform’s success – and longevity.

RVR can be programmed via the Sphero Edu app – and community, meaning that a broad range of apps will eventually be available. “Our block canvas, based on Scratch, is a great introduction to coding for both kids and adults,” explains the company. “For more advanced users, the JavaScript that powers the blocks can be coded directly.”

At RVR’s commercial release in October 2019, Sphero will also provide SDKs, code samples, and other resources for platforms such as Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and BBC micro:bit – with, more to follow, says the company.

In this way, a toy becomes a stepping stone to an interest in STEM/STEAM skills, and then on to developing a huge range of potential applications. A robot that can grow in usefulness as a child grows is an enticing idea – as is one that encourages imaginative adults to play with ideas.

In time, pre-built, add-on hardware for specific tasks would be a logical next step for Sphero, for any buyers who want the functionality without the need to code.

Sphero suggests a range of possible uses for RVR, such as autonomous metal detecting, roving environmental sensors that can be controlled over the internet, and even a personalised mobile voice assistant – something Amazon may be in the market for too.

Other applications aren’t hard to imagine: teams of survey and maintenance bots in pipes or underground; inland search and rescue; mapping; low-presence security monitoring; patrolling hazardous environments, and more. All at the price of a mid-range consumer drone.

Announcing its Kickstarter campaign – which passed its funding target two days after launch this week – Sphero said, “You wanted a robot that conquers all kinds of surfaces, recognises faces, has an onboard camera, responds to voice commands, maps the environment, streams music, plays laser tag, carries groceries, and flings potatoes into the stratosphere, so we delivered… in a way.

“We built a robot that YOU could programme, hack, and customise, as opposed to one that’s already tricked out for you. Plus, RVR furthers our mission to engage more students and teachers through hands-on, fun technology that leverages the power of play.” That may be the key to success, in a world increasingly led by consumer-style experiences and technology ease of use.

In related sensors and robotics news, unmanned aerial systems company SPH Engineering has this week released its new Facade Scan tool for its Universal Ground Control Software (UgCS).

The company says the system allows drones to scan vertical facades and surfaces accurately from the air, along with other aerial distance and perspective challenges, such as scanning mines and open quarries – tasks that were previously difficult for onboard sensors to carry out reliably.

Be part of a discussion and connect with like-minded leaders in your sector at our forthcoming trade event – The Sensor Show – next year.