14 April 2010
The first available personal robot, Hero 1 could
speak; carry small objects in a gripping arm, and sense light, motion,
sound, and time.
The people behind the invention:
Karel Capek (1890-1938), a Czech playwright
The Health Company, an American electronics manufacturer
In 1920, the Czech playwright Karel Capek introduced the term
robot, which he used to refer to intelligent, humanoid automatons
that were subservient to humans. Robots such as those described
by Capek have not yet been developed; their closest counterparts
are the nonintelligent automatons used by industry and by private
individuals. Most industrial robots are heavy-duty, immobile machines
designed to replace humans in routine, undesirable, monotonous
jobs. Most often, they use programmed gripping arms to
carry out tasks such as spray painting cars, assembling watches,
and shearing sheep.
Modern personal robots are smaller, more mobile, less expensive
models that serve mostly as toys or teaching tools. In some
cases, they can be programmed to carry out activities such as walking
dogs or serving mixed drinks. Usually, however, it takes more
effort to program a robot to perform such activities than it does to
do them oneself.
The Hero 1, which was first manufactured by the Heath Company
in 1982, has been a very popular personal robot. Conceived
as a toy and a teaching tool, the Hero 1 can be programmed
to speak; to sense light, sound, motion, and time; and
to carry small objects. The Hero 1 and other personal robots are
often viewed as tools that will someday make it possible to produce
Hero 1 Operation
The concept of artificial beings serving humanity has existed
since antiquity (for example, it is found in Greek mythology). Such
devices, which are now called robots, were first actualized, in a
simple form, in the 1960’s. Then, in the mid-1970’s, the manufacture
of personal robots began. One of the first personal robots was
the Turtle, which was made by the Terrapin Company of Cambridge,
Massachusetts. The Turtle was a toy that entertained owners
via remote control, programmable motion, a beeper, and blinking
displays. The Turtle was controlled by a computer to which it
was linked by a cable.
Among the first significant personal robots was the Hero 1. This
robot, which was usually sold in the form of a $1,000 kit that had to
be assembled, is a squat, thirty-nine-pound mobile unit containing a
head, a body, and a base. The head contains control boards, sensors,
and a manipulator arm. The body houses control boards and related
electronics, while the base contains a three-wheel-drive unit that
renders the robot mobile.
The Heath Company, which produced the Hero 1, viewed it as
providing entertainment for and teaching people who are interested
in robot applications. To facilitate these uses, the following
abilities were incorporated into the Hero 1: independent operation
via rechargeable batteries; motion- and distance/position-sensing
capability; light, sound, and language use/recognition; a manipulator
arm to carry out simple tasks; and easy programmability.
The Hero 1 is powered by four rechargeable batteries arranged as
two 12-volt power supplies. Recharging is accomplished by means
of a recharging box that is plugged into a home outlet. It takes six to
eight hours to recharge depleted batteries, and complete charging is
signaled by an indicator light. In the functioning robot, the power
supplies provide 5-volt and 12-volt outputs to logic and motor circuits,
The Hero 1 moves by means of a drive mechanism in its base. The
mechanism contains three wheels, two of which are unpowered
drones. The third wheel, which is powered for forward and reverse
motion, is connected to a stepper motor that makes possible directional
steering. Also included in the powered wheel is a metal disk with spaced reflective slots that helps Hero 1 to identify its position.
As the robot moves, light is used to count the slots, and the slot
count is used to measure the distance the robot has traveled, and
therefore its position.
The robot’s “senses,” located in its head, consist of sound, light,
and motion detectors as well as a phoneme synthesizer (phonemes
are sounds, or units of speech). All these components are connected
with the computer. The Hero 1 can detect sounds between 200 and
5,000 hertz. Its motion sensor detects all movement within a 15-foot
radius. The phoneme synthesizer is capable of producing most
words by using combinations of 64 phonemes. In addition, the robot
keeps track of time by using an internal clock/calendar.
The Hero 1 can carry out various tasks by using a gripper that
serves as a hand. The arm on which the gripper is located is connected
to the back of the robot’s head. The head (and, therefore, the
arm) can rotate 350 degrees horizontally. In addition, the arm contains
a shoulder motor that allows it to rise or drop 150 degrees vertically,
and its forearm can be either extended or retracted. Finally, a
wrist motor allows the gripper’s tip to rotate by 350 degrees, and the
two-fingered gripper can open up to a maximum width of 3.5
inches. The arm is not useful except as an educational tool, since its
load-bearing capacity is only about a pound and its gripper can exert
a force of only 6 ounces.
The computational capabilities of the robot are much more impressive
than its physical capabilities. Programming is accomplished
by means of a simple keypad located on the robot’s head, which
provides an inexpensive, easy-to-use method of operator-computer
communication. To make things simpler for users who want entertainment
without having to learn robotics, a manual mode is included
for programming. In the manual mode, a hand-held teaching
pendant is connected to Hero 1 and used to program all the
motion capabilities of the robot. The programming of sensory and
language abilities, however, must be accomplished by using the
keyboard. Using the keyboard and the various options that are
available enables Hero 1 owners to program the robot to perform
many interesting activities.
The Hero 1 had a huge impact on robotics; thousands of people
purchased it and used it for entertainment, study, and robot design.
The Heath Company itself learned from the Hero 1 and later introduced
an improved version: Heathkit 2000. This personal robot,
which costs between $2,000 and $4,500, has ten times the capabilities
of Hero 1, operates via radio-controlled keyboard, contains a
voice synthesizer that can be programmed in any language, and
plugs itself in for recharging.
Other companies, including the Androbot Company in California,
have manufactured personal robots that sell for up to $10,000.
One such robot is the Androbot BOB (brains on board). It can guard
a home, call the police, walk at 2.5 kilometers per hour, and sing.
Androbot has also designed Topo, a personal robot that can serve
drinks. Still other robots can sort laundry and/or vacuum-clean
houses. Although modern robots lack intelligence and merely have
the ability to move when they are directed to by a program or by remote
control, there is no doubt that intelligent robots will be developed
in the future.