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R2D2 for businessmen - and do-it-yourselfers

By Arthur UngerTelevision critic of The Christian Science Monitor / December 6, 1982



New York

Is there an R2D2 in your future?

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Well, according to Heathkit, if there's not the ''Star Wars'' R2D2 in your future, there is probably a HERO 1, the $1,500 robot in kit form just introduced here at a press conference for science writers and editors.

Executives from Heathkit, a longtime maker of do-it-yourself electronics kits , say HERO 1 (an acronym for Heath Educational Robot) is the nation's first mass-produced robot with a full body of capabilities that enables it to interact with the environment. HERO 1's built-in sensors permit it to detect light, sound , motion, and obstructions. And it has a computerized voice that can also sing.

The robot's only major limitations, Heath representatives say, lie in the imagination of the programmer. One of the most important factors in determining the extent and speed of robot implementation by industry will be the availability of personnel trained in robotics. Therefore, Heath (which considers industry its prime target right now with home use to come later) is also marketing a robotics education course to be used in conjunction with HERO 1.

''This is not a toy, not a gadget. It is the most affordable real robot on the market today,'' says William E. Johnson, Heath's president. He explains that whereas there are only about 7,000 robots in use in US industrial plants today, during the next decade the Robot Institute of America estimates the figure will jump to 100,000.

Physically HERO 1 resembles R2D2. It is 20 inches tall and weighs 39 pounds. The most prominent feature is its turret-like head, which rotates up to 350 degrees and carries an arm mechanism, programming keyboard, and experimental circuit board. It can be programmed to pick up small objects, speak complete words and sentences with its voice synthesizer, travel over predetermined courses, and repeat special functions on a predetermined schedule. It carries its own rechargeable power supply.

Although the kit will sell for about $1,500, the fully assembled robot will retail for around $2,500.

In a demonstration, HERO 1 was programmed to alert homeowners to intruders. Although these functions imply home use, Heath estimates that its main use for some time will be as a teaching device for students learning robotics.