I work at one of the coolest places on earth. Most people know about the history and the many significant contributions made by the Palo Alto Research Center (formerly Xerox PARC), but may not realize that the good work continues. PARC was spun off from Xerox several years ago and now focuses on all kinds of research—working with various commercial clients and on government projects as well as spinning out start-up companies. Innovation spans a variety of domains from green energy to knowledge and information overload. PARC continues to have a quiet but big impact.
There has been some recent interest in reviving the robotics research area, and yesterday we had a visit from some good folks from Willow Garage. They brought along one of their Personal Robot 2 machines (this one is named Froto), which is a research platform for creating devices to help humans perform their everyday tasks in environments like the home or office. It will no doubt be a benefit to people with disabilities in the near future. The robot maps out the space it will navigate and was getting bored with the Willow Garage offices in Menlo Park, so they brought it to PARC for a change of scenery. They gave us a demonstration of its capabilities and sensors that include two Hokoyo UTM-30LX laser range finders and two stereo-based multi-camera sensors in addition to the actuating arms (although poor Froto currently has just one). It spent the day traipsing through our site figuring out where everything was. At one point I looked up from my desk to find it barging into my office just assuming it would be welcomed (it was).
Willow Garage is a company that develops hardware and software for personal robotic applications. They are strong supporters of the open-source personal robotics community, and all of their software is released under a BSD license, so it is completely free for researchers to use and change. They even hope and help other companies to commercialize on it. The PR2 is currently under development and will be made available to R&D labs once they feel it's stable enough and ready.