RoboBusiness: Workhorse Robots, Starter Kits, and Internet of Bots

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off-the-shelf devices, such as Microsoft’s Kinect console, or integrate tablets, as Double Robotics has done with its telepresence robot. Going forward, iRobot’s Angle thinks a few critical software technologies are maturing, including artificial intelligence and indoor navigation.

Traditionally indoor navigation, which is essential for robots to know their surroundings, is done with simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) technology. Using lasers, it scans an area to build a map for the robot but it’s expensive, Angle said. Now, some imaging companies are using cameras to build indoor maps to help architecture firms create visual representations of their work, for instance.

“The next revolution coming is visual SLAM using low-cost cameras,” he said. “It effectively builds usable maps for tens of dollars as opposed to hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is a technology that companies that make mobile robots will want to embrace.”

What about software tools for building new robots? I also spoke to San Diego-based Brain Corporation, which has made a low-cost hardware and software kit for robot developers; it plans to release the beta product early next year. Central to the kit is software that allows for rapid programming by showing the robot the motion the user wants to do using a remote control; the robot then mimics those motions.

For example, a person could show a mobile robot how to pick up toys and put them in a bin. “We think there will be a lot more sophisticated applications once the kinds of technologies we’re working on become broadly available. It shouldn’t be that hard to do,” said Todd Hylton, the company’s senior vice president of strategy.

The Internet of Robots. How do the Internet of things and robotics fit together? It’s early days, but people I spoke with said that the two technology trends reinforce each other. A smart thermostat, for example, could benefit from geo-tagged data gathered by a robot, or a home healthcare robot could get imagery to monitor how an elderly person is doing at home instead of relying on a fixed camera, says Angle.

Also, robots can benefit from sensors and wireless communications in buildings and other environments, says Dan Kara, an analyst at ABI Research. “What you have is an edge device that highly mobile and highly sensored that’s operating in an environment that’s highly sensored itself. And you have some local computing” with the robot, Kara said.

Most of all, one gets the feeling that robotics is attracting more entrepreneurs and investors, sometimes from other fields of technology. As a high-tech field, research and development remains integral to commercial robots. But the people who can meet a market need are the ones who will get robots out of the lab and into more mainstream use.

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