I recently became acquainted with a small startup company that's just launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring REX -- a palm-sized, single-board computer designed specifically for DIY robots -- to the market. As you can see from the image below, REX is small and compact, about the same size as a standard pack of playing cards:
REX is easy to work with and can be used to control small, simple robot platforms like the one shown below:
REX is also extremely powerful; it can handle a wide range of sensors -- up to and including machine vision and speech recognition -- and it can be used to control sophisticated robot platforms like the one shown below:
As you may recall, over the past couple of months I've grown interested in building a small Arduino-powered robot platform to accommodate a rather interesting machine vision sensor that will shortly be headed my way. (See: What Batteries Should Power My Arduino Robot? and A Sensor for All Seasons.)
As part of my initial investigations and "thought experiments," I've become increasingly aware of the problems associated with using a simple microcontroller to handle multiple sensors and motors and suchlike. This is especially true if you want to start performing more sophisticated tasks like computer vision and speech recognition. In the case of an Arduino, for example, this is -- by default -- geared (no pun intended) to perform a single task at a time. The problem with robots is that you typically require multiple tasks to be running at the same time.
Thus I was really interested to hear about a small startup company called Alphalem, which was founded by Mike Lewis and Kartik Tiwari in a conference room at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute in March of 2013, while they were pursing their MRSD robotics degrees.
Kartik Tiwari (left) and Mike Lewis (right).
Mike had entered CMU after working as an embedded software engineer at Broadcom Corp. and rediscovering a long-time interest in hobby robotics and realizing the parallels between the early PC industry and the current state of robotics. Kartik left his job at Suzuki in India for CMU to satisfy an interest in professional robotics and pursue an ambitious goal of making the types of robots seen in pop-sci a reality.
They originally formed their company to develop a miniature quadrocopter drone one could use to automatically take pictures of oneself, something Mike had pitched to the MRSD class at the beginning of the program. This idea was meant to solve a trivially irritating problem for people who travel alone or hate the idea of hauling around a tripod. But, after mulling it over for the next couple months, Mike realized that they wouldn't have sufficient time or money to develop a working prototype from scratch.
Taking a step back, he looked closely at the root of a problem -- the lack of a low-cost robot development platform for advanced robotics. Building Arduino-based robots is fairly straightforward, but taking the next step and building robots that use computer vision and voice recognition is very difficult. Such a platform could help make more advanced projects accessible to the everyday hobby roboticist. Kartik was thrilled about the new idea, being much closer to what he eventually wanted to achieve, and also realizing how helpful it would have been when the students were building other robots in the MRSD project course.
In June 2013, they moved to Campbell, Calif., in Silicon Valley. In their tiny apartment, they worked for the next five months designing what they believe to be the ideal robot development platform. Originally named the AlphaOne as a nod to Apple's very first PC, Mike proposed changing the name to REX after staring long and hard at the Jurassic Park
mug on his desk one day. Mike is the product engineer, working on the systems software and hardware at Alphalem, while Kartik is the software applications engineer and lead roboticist in charge of the Alphalem Development Environment (ADE) and building awesome robots.
At the time of this writing, Mike and Kartik have working prototypes of REX and their custom Linux distribution, Alphalem OS. The hardware side of REX includes a 1 GHz 32-bit ARM Cortex-A8 processor core, an 800 MHz DSP core, and 512 MB of RAM. Meanwhile, on the software side, the Alphalem OS boasts a host of features that facilitate your developing your own robot applications; these features include built-in drivers for sensors and other devices, a task manager for launching multiple processes, support for multiple programming languages (C, C++, and Python), and an Arduino-style programming environment.
I was just chatting with Kartik, who tells me that -- yesterday as I penned these words -- he and Mike launched a Kickstarter campaign for REX. This campaign is required to fund the rest of development and the mass production of the final product. Even though this campaign has been running for less than 24 hours at the time of this writing, people have already pledged almost $5,000 of the project's $90,000 goal.
I am really, really impressed with the work that Mike and Kartik have done thus far -- I think these are names that we will be seeing again and again in the future, and I can see a great future for them in the field of robotics. You have to admit that REX looks very, very tempting. What say you? Can you be tempted?
— Max Maxfield, Editor of All Things Fun & Interesting