We’re pretty proud of our engineering team here at Neato, but not only because they are designing the most intelligent robot vacuums on the planet. Their engineering chops are currently on display for the world to see as they compete in several national robotic competitions with robots they’ve made at nights and on weekends.
Two teams of our engineers, along with former Neato employees and some friends of the company, have entered their revolutionary robots in two challenges: NASA’s Sample Return Robot Challenge in Massachusetts and in the wildly popular BattleBots® TV series, currently being shown on ABC television channels on Sunday nights at 9:00/8:00c. The Battlebots semi-finals are showing this Sunday, July 26th.
NASA’s competition, which was held in mid-June, was not just for fun. The 20 competing teams were tasked with demonstrating that their robot could locate and collect geologic samples from a large and varied landscape, without human control. According to NASA, “the objective is to encourage innovations in autonomous navigation and robotic manipulation technologies. These innovations may enhance NASA’s space exploration capabilities and could have applications on Earth, continuing the nation’s leadership in robotic technology.”
How did the Neato-sponsored team do? Very well, even though they didn’t win. While none of the teams competing in the Level 1 challenge successfully retrieved the required sample, the Neato-sponsored team was one of only three teams to successfully leave the starting platform twice, drive and navigate for a majority of the 30 minute allotted time — and was the only team to display obstacle avoidance behaviors. (We know something about obstacle avoidance – as anyone with a Neato vacuum can attest!)
Sunday nights are definitely TV nights for all Neato employees as they cheer on “Ghost Raptor,” a Neato-sponsored, mean, lean fighting machine on ABC’s BattleBots. This series, which is returning to television after a 13-year hiatus, features 20 teams from across the country who battle each other in an elimination tournament format, with one final champion left standing at the end of the six episodes. Using remote control, teams try to destroy their opponent’s robot by running them into dangerous hammers, circular saws, and spikes. Not for the faint of heart, the BattleBots series is expected to draw millions of viewers during its prime-time spot, and showcase the next generation of robots with new designs and advanced features.
Ghost Raptor’s team leader is Chuck Pitzer, a Neato engineer who has been obsessed with robots ever since he saw the MIT robotics challenges in the late 1980s. “I was hooked,” he says. “When the original Robot Wars showed up on TV in 94’, 95’, 96’, I knew where a lot of my energy was going to be focused. Since then, I’ve leveraged the things that I’ve learned about materials, controls, software, and mechanical design into my jobs. Now that I’m at Neato, I feel like we can leverage a lot of the intelligent software that controls the Neato vacuum into Ghost Raptor.”
Chuck is something of a legend in BattleBots history. He competed in all five of the original BattleBots seasons and made it to the semi-finals and the finals twice. BattleBots contacted him for the 2015 series and asked him to design a new and edgy robot. The result is Ghost Raptor a 248.8 pound, kinetic-energy bar-spinner, swift-moving and agile robot.
Why is the robot named Ghost Raptor? According to Chuck, “the Ghost was pulled from pop culture. Icons like Ghost Rider and the understanding that the gyroscopic forces of the head would probably make the whole robot float gave this robot its name.”