Japan-based PLEN2 was one of the finalists in this year’s China Bang Awards, boasting a tiny, completely open source bipedal robot that can do everything from skateboarding to play soccer.
“When I was a kid, I really loved robot animations,” PLEN Project CEO and Founder Natsuo Akazawa says. Akazawa grew up and started working at a ski resort in Japan. The turning point of starting the robot company was when his father wanted to hand over a small factory for mechanics to his son.
“I didn’t want to own the factory, instead I wanted to start a business out of what I have loved since I was very young: robots. I wanted to make robot for kids,” he says.
Mr. Akazawa established the company in 2004, and launched the PLEN1 robot two years later, but it was difficult keeping the small hardware company afloat. “We didn’t have enough money to come up with the next robot. So we reached out to robotic communities in schools and universities.”
Furthermore, he claims the 2008 financial crisis had a damaging effect on consumer appetite for robotics, leading them to completely sideline the project for half a decade.
When the booming maker movement finally reached Osaka in 2012, a rich field of open source developers and 3D printing capabilities finally made low-cost robotics a possibility, which is when the PLEN2 robot was born.
“Before, we needed to ask factories to manufacture the product, which took a lot money and time. However, thanks to the maker movement, now we can make a new prototype in an office day and night using 3D printer, with a reasonable price,” he said.
The company monetizes by selling their robot package curriculum, which consists of an education program for universities, hardware, a software app, and a visual programming tool. But the project remains completely open source, with capabilities for developers at home to print the robot themselves and program the cute bipedal acrobat.
Fo those who wish to purchase the entire kit instead, the company sells a PLEN2 kit consisting control boards, servomotors and other accessories. The users only need a screwdriver, and do not need any technical knowledge and special tools to assemble the robot’s hardware. The robot is also called the ‘mirror robot’, because it can copy people’s movements. The cheapest model kit is sold at $550 USD, he says.
In the future, the company will make a much smaller robot, so users can bring it anywhere with them.
“Small robots will take over the place of smartphones, as the voice command function will be strengthened,” he said.
Mr. Akazawa says there are two reasons for that. First, the robot is open source, and can attract developers. Second, the robot’s interface helps users interact with the product by camera and sensor devices.
The company launched a joint venture with a Chinese consumer electronic company Goertek on Thursday. Plen Goer Robotics, headquartered in Osaka, will be run by Mr. Akazawa. He foresees that production costs will be get lower for this year, through their collaboration with the Chinese company.
Image Credit: PLEN2
This article is part of our coverage from Technode’s China Bang Awards 2016 event held in Chengdu on March 30th-31st.