WowWee brings expensive university bots to store shelves

By Corinne Iozzio for Scientific American:  Hong Kong–based WowWee's success stems from bringing university research projects to life that might otherwise languish in the prototype stage. A licensing agreement with the Flow Control and Coordinated Robotics Labs at the University of California, San Diego, for example, provides WowWee with access to patents and the labs with a healthy cash infusion. The collaboration has already netted a series of toy robots that balance like Segways. More recently, the avionics lab at Concordia University in Montreal began working with the company to perfect flight algorithms for a four-rotor drone. Next, chief technology officer Davin Sufer says he has his eye on the Georgia Institute of Technology and its work with swarming behaviors, which would allow a group of robots to function in tandem.

In the case of Switchbot, WowWee adapted a locomotion system developed in part by former U.C. San Diego student Nick Morozovsky. The robot moves on tank-tread legs either horizontally to navigate uneven terrain or on end to stand and scoot fully upright. Morozovsky built his prototype with off-the-shelf parts, including a set of $50 motors. The motors were a compromise; each one had the size and torque he wanted but not the speed. Over the past few years he has worked with WowWee to customize a motor with the exact parameters needed and to cut the final cost of the part down to single digits.

That back and forth yields low-cost, mass-producible parts, which means university-level robotics could become available to everyday people. “One of the reasons I went into mechanical engineering was so I could create real things that have a direct impact,” Morozovsky says. “I didn't expect that to necessarily happen in the process of grad school.”  Cont'd...

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