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

Roboticists who attend business conferences don’t always have kind words for humanoid robots. It’s not that walking, talking androids aren’t cool, particularly if one could take the trash out for you. But entrepreneurs and investors in robotics are looking for something far more practical—and profitable—in the near term.

Commercial viability and pragmatism was one of the themes at last week’s RoboBusiness conference in Boston. The company that won the startup pitch competition was nLink, a Norwegian company that makes a machine to measure and drill holes in ceilings for construction workers. Rather than tout the crane-mounted machine’s autonomous robot features, founder Konrad Fangertun focused on the end result and its business model—“drilling holes into concrete ceilings as a service.”

During his keynote talk, iRobot CEO Colin Angle poked some fun at his own work from his student days at MIT, saying that building a legged robot to walk up stairs is a waste of time. IRobot sells stair-climbing robots to the military that use tracks and flippers and are far more effective at the task. Similarly, making hand-like grippers with four or five digits often isn’t necessary when simpler and cheaper grippers can be just as effective. “The goal isn’t to create a replica of a person; it’s to solve a problem,” Angle said.

Indeed, a walk around the conference floor showed that robots come in many different shapes—from tank-like machines with tracks, to robotic arms, to something that looks like a moving file cabinet. There were humanoid robots as well, but they used for research or very specialized needs, such as operating on the International Space Station.

A few other themes I picked up on during my visit:

Collaborative robots. Historically, robots have been industrial machines on the factory floor that were kept away from people for safety reasons. But that’s been changing as designers build robots to work alongside people.

That’s very much the point of Baxter, the manufacturing robot made by Rethink Robotics, which can be taught to perform a task by having a person move its arms. But the notion of having robots and humans working side by side is happening throughout the industry.

North Billerica, MA-based Harvest Automation, for example, sells a small robot designed to move potted plants around greenhouses and nurseries and is now working on a robot to fetch goods in warehouses that fulfill e-commerce orders, CEO John Kawola told me. The company envisions that a warehouse worker would walk and put requested items in a milk crate-size bin placed on a lower shelf. Later, the robot, which only comes up to about the knee, would drive up and collect bins when they’re filled.

Kiva Systems already makes robots for e-commerce warehouses, but since being acquired by Amazon two years ago, it’s focusing its efforts on Amazon facilities. “It’s created an opportunity in the market,” Kawola said. “And the e-commerce side of warehouses is exploding.”

Similarly, Vecna’s QC Bot is designed to work with nurses to deliver materials, such as medications and meals, in hospitals. It can also be used for telepresence. (In a sign of how important robotics is to healthcare, Vecna plans to host a robotics incubator at its offices in Cambridge as part of a MassRobotics initiative.)

The soft(ware) side of robotics. Robotics companies already borrow heavily from other industries for their components, such as sensors and wireless chips used in mobile phones. Similarly, robots can get relatively cheap gesture recognition capabilities from 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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