(updated) Telepresence Robot
I telecommute between Austin and Dallas and have wanted a telepresence robot for a couple of years. I finally got the courage to build one (not being much of a hardware guy and never having built a robot) and I am happy to report that it was a success. I use it daily and it has held up well and become an indispensable work tool for me. I constructed it out of very high level parts (its more of an integration project than a true manufacture) and believe that just about anybody could make one in a short period of time. With that in mind I creating a detailed how-to blog here aimed at a casual, semi-technical audience.
(updated 8/31/2011) - finished 8-part build instructions, uploaded software, and video
Here is a short summary of the project details:
The robot wheel base is an iRobot Create. I constructed a body frame out of square aluminum tubing and T connectors and bolted it to the Create base. On top of that I mounted a product called a PowerPod which is basically a motarized platform for video and security cameras. It forms the "neck" of the robot and allows me to look side-to-side and up/down independently from the base. I created a custom bracket to attach an Asus netbook to the PowerPod so that the entire netbook can rotate making it appear that my head is turning so I can look directly at people's faces. The battery is removed from the netbook and I added the circuitry to voltage convert and power the netbook directly from the Create battery. The Create has an auto-docking battery charger that allows me to keep the robot powered. It lasts about an hour on a charge, so I can perform most tasks including driving the length of my office (luckily we're on a single floor), going in and out of coworker offices, and having short chats or even relatively long meetings.
I use Skype for my video and voice and I wrote custom software in C# to control the Create via serial port. The control messages piggy back over Skype from my control computer in Austin to my robot in Dallas. That is really convenient because I can rely on Skype to traverse the firewall instead of having to open and redirect ports on the corporate firewall. I have been using it for about two months and it works quite well. (It looks top heavy in the picture but it moves around quite well and has never fallen over) Here are some closeups of the robot and at some point I will upload some video of it in motion.