Help on Wheels: Jersey-Made Robots

Five Elements Robotics in Wall manufactures robots designed to assist the elderly or people with disabilities.

Five Elements Robotics CEO Wendy Roberts leads a loyal Budgee around Short Hills Mall.
Five Elements Robotics CEO Wendy Roberts leads a loyal Budgee around Short Hills Mall.
Photo by Noah Rabinowitz

Charlie has baby blue eyes, one larger than the other, and a red plastic hat. His wide, gray head sits atop a long, hinged neck. If Charlie could talk, he might tell you that he is a robot.

Manufactured at Five Elements Robotics in Wall, Charlie’s purpose in life is to carry stuff for his owner. To that end, Charlie’s body is a black canvas box, about the size of a picnic basket. The box sits on a platform with three plastic wheels. Charlie scoots along to commands from a remote transmitter.

Charlie weighs about 20 pounds and stands hip high to his creator, Five Elements Robotics CEO Wendy Roberts, a software developer who previously programmed for the military. But Charlie and his fellow robots (model name Budgee) are designed for civilian use, with a focus on the elderly and disabled. Available at their website, the first Budgees were to be shipped in July.

Why pay $1,400 for Charlie and his bionic brethren? Roberts claims the robots can help moms with kids in tow or people with disabilities to carry purchases and belongings—at the mall, for example. “Budgee empowers individuals by transforming into their very own personal robot assistant,” she explains.

Budgees are controlled through a cell phone app. Once moving, they follow a signal from a transmitter, which can be attached to the operator’s belt buckle or wheelchair. To demonstrate, Philip Bocchetto, the lead test engineer at Five Elements, walks backward with the transmitter extended toward Charlie—as if luring a dog with a steak. Charlie follows closely; Five Elements’ patented technology helps him veer around obstacles. Box him in and he let’s you know. “Help me,” says the robot. “I seem to be stuck.” The voice comes through the cell phone rather than the robot itself.

Women are better at walking with the robot, says Roberts. Men will try to outrun it; at one demonstration, a prospective buyer ran the robot into a partition. “Men will push it to the limits,” says Roberts. “It’s like they’re thinking, ‘What crazy thing can I do with this robot?’”

Five Elements is working on a more rugged Budgee that could operate on all terrain. An advanced version would have robotic hands and be able to manipulate objects. With hands, a Budgee could, for example, go into a nuclear plant during an emergency and flip a switch.

Until then, Charlie and company will be biding their time around the house and in the shopping mall.

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