Shadow Robot Company Nesta Project

Document created: 6th August 2002
Last Modified: Thursday, 21-Jun-2012 14:04:08 BST
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The Shadow Robot Company has received an award from Nesta to fund the development of a prototype assistant for the disabled. The Award will enable us to demonstrate the feasibility of the idea of bringing robotics into the daily lives of those most needing to benefit from it.

What will the award fund?

The Nesta award will enable the Shadow Robot Company to construct a first working prototype of the assistant device. This will be a robot with hands similar to the hands of a human, with the potential of performing a range of tasks in the household. The award will also fund the background development of the next stage of such a project: bringing the device to market.

How long will the award last for?

The award has a maximum duration of 18 months. We expect to be demonstrating prototypes before that point.

Why is such a robot a good idea?

At present, there are 2 million people in the United Kingdom who receive Disability Living Allowance, and 1.25 million who receive Attendance Allowance [Source].This care allowance can never cover the full requirements of a person. We hope that the development of robot assistive technology can provide some of these people with a significant increase in the quality and dignity of their lives.

What will the robot do?

We will be very pleased when it can get a glass of water! Seriously, in the first instance, these robots will perform only the simplest of tasks, under direct control from the user. Only with development will they be able to perform a wide range of useful tasks for the users.

How will the development of the software happen?

The software on the robots will be Free Software. Every user will have the right to modify and improve the software. Initially, this will require technical skills, but we expect to develop a range of technologies allowing the non-technical user to train robots in the performance of useful tasks.

How will this software be managed?

We expect that there will be three versions of the robot software in use: stable, testing and unstable. Stable will be reliable, well-trusted code, that no-one has any outstanding issues with. Testing will be code that may still have issues or bugs, but is generally felt to be usable. Unstable will be code that will be expected to break. If you have used the Debian distribution of GNU/Linux, you will recognise this model.

What will happen about bugs?

Good question. The point of Free Software is that, if you are worried about bugs, you can find out about the bugs. The source code is available for inspection; with a management procedure like that described, if you are concerned about reliability, you can stick with the stable version. We will maintain a public bug-database, so that all known bugs can be inspected.

What about other robots?

We want to develop systems that are useful. We don't want to spend our time reinventing wheels. So, we plan to build on a base of quality Free Software, writing code only when necessary, and ensuring that the software we work on is usable on a range of other systems. We think this is the best way to ensure a healthy robotics community and industry. Hence, we currently use GNU/Linux, RTAI and are actively tracking other related work.

Why hasn't this happened before?

There have been attempts to build useful robots for a long time. However, there have been a variety of technical and social problems (let alone financial ones!) that have meant that it just wasn't steam-engine time. From our point of view, the key development was the fully-dextrous Hand, which enables us to construct a robot that we can expect to do useful tasks.

I want one! When can I have one?

As soon as possible! The main barrier to developing this technology is getting the money to pay for the development. It's taken us years to get this far; we expect that the Nesta award will make a major difference. But there is still more to be done; if you can help, technically or financially, please get in touch.

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