Saturday, October 11, 2014

Rethinking iRobot, Samsung and Dyson robotic vacuum cleaners

At a break in a conference in San Diego, I was sitting enjoying my tea, when up walked Rodney Brooks (of Rethink Robotics and Baxter fame) and said (with a mischievious smile):
Rodney Brooks
"I have a bone to pick with you! Robotic vacuum cleaners didn't just become mainstream as you said in your article. We have sold 12 million by now and are the biggest seller in Samsung's home (Korea)."
He went on to say that Dyson is a small player in the global vacuum marketplace and that Samsung has gone through many iterations of improvement yet iRobot's Roomba's still outsell them in their core market.

Brooks was referring to my two articles in The Robot Report where I commented about Samsung's and Dyson's new robotic vacuums. He wasn't really angry; just having fun. But I began to think about what he was referring to, considering whether I had said something incorrect or possibly hurtful. The second of my two articles had the headline: Latest robotic vacuum product launches change industry from niche to mainstream.
Samsung (left) and Dyson robotic vacuum cleaners
In those articles I said:
Should iRobot be worried? Definitely! Dyson has considerable experience in the higher-end vacuuming market - selling more than 10 million devices a year! Dyson generated nearly $10 billion in revenue in 2013 of which at least 40% is vacuum-related versus iRobot's $487 million. Consequently, if the new Dyson 360 Eye robotic vacuum is as good as other Dyson vacuum cleaners, there is much reason for iRobot to worry.
iRobot, over the past 10 years, has sold 10 million Roombas, mostly through online distribution methods. With the global consumer distribution channels that both Dyson and Samsung bring, it's conceivable that either (or both) could sell 10 million of their products in a single year!
In the two articles, I was attempting to describe the transition that often happens with unique consumer products as they switch from niche markets of early adopters to the massively larger mainstream household products market. And even though iRobot has sold 10 million Roombas over a 10-year period, that's just a fraction of the 50+ million global vacuums sold annually for $11 billion (source: TechNavio).

Both Dyson and Samsung have upgraded the vacuuming function of their robotic cleaners to be equivalent to non-robotic cleaners. Consequently, they have endorsed what iRobot invented many years ago: a convenient robotic method of cleaning carpets and floors. But their endorsement comes at the expense of competition which is sure to happen in the years to come.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Industrial robot makers set goals to become Service Robotics providers

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

"The future of automation lies in direct cooperation between humans and robots. In order for a robot to be able to work safely with humans, a whole new robot generation is required: the machines must be sensitive and compliant." -- Dr. Albrecht Hoene, KUKA Labs



All over the world of manufacturing, fenceless applications of robots and humans working together are enabling entirely new possibilities in modern factory settings. In small and medium-sized shops, plug and play easily-programmable robots are making inroads helping production workers use these new co-bots to offload some of their less-skilled tasks thereby freeing themselves to do more productive work. Workshops in collaborative robotics are springing up and industrial trade shows are featuring transition products into the world of service and collaborative robotics.

Volatile markets, product diversity, multiple variants and shorter product lifecycles mean that production must adapt quickly to new conditions, i.e. it must be versatile. Those new conditions have been given the term "Industry 4.0" in Europe and "Smart" or "Advanced Manufacturing" in the U.S. In many cases, these terms mean a move away from rigid full automation to flexible work-sharing between humans and robot.
"Using the robot as a production assistant makes production more versatile than ever before and enables entirely new concepts in manufacturing."
Industry 4.0 and Advanced Manufacturing are gaining momentum on many fronts. DARPA is investing in Military-service-affiliated Manufacturing Demonstration Facilities that will provide a lasting, shared resource to provide the manufacturing community with greater access to open manufacturing and research. These facilities will:
  • Serve as repositories of focused manufacturing knowledge and infrastructure
  • Independently demonstrate designs, manufacturing processes, process models and manufactured products
  • Curate and assess manufacturing models, qualification schema and material/processing properties data
In America, the Obama Administration is pushing Advanced Manufacturing on many fronts. Their new institutions are patterned after the successful Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. In fact, a team from the Fraunhofer IPA visited the US last year and met with and described their formula to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and consulted with the Advanced Manufacturing and Robotics and Cyber-Physical Systems directors -- all of which led to the Obama Administration's "Proposal to Establish a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation," NNMI, and this has led further to the launch of four new automation and manufacturing technology centers in the U.S. so far this year.

Major robot manufacturers see the writing on the wall and have developed (or are in the process of developing) roadmaps to transition to these new markets. Many will be showing their efforts at AUTOMATICA 2014 in AUTOMATICA's special focus this year on Service Robotics and SMEs.

AUTOMATICA 2014, being held next week in Munich, offers an opportunity to explore Industry 4.0 and Advanced Manufacturing, along with viewing first-hand the big robot manufacturers plans to move into the Service Robots arena in one big robotics and automation trade show and conference. I'll be there walking the floors, listening to exhibitors, and gathering information. Will you?

Are there any big ideas [about robotics] the mainstream is still missing?”

By Frank Tobe, Editor, The Robot Report


A The Robot Report reader asked a question that addresses a subject I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about — “are there any big ideas you think the mainstream is still missing [about robotics]?” 

When PCs became available in the early '90's, key software that people wanted was also available and could only be operated on PCs: 
  • Wordstar - for word processing - think MS Word
  • VisiCalc - for spreadsheets - think Excel
  • dBase - for relational databases - think Access or mySQL
These three softwares drove sales of PCs into unforeseen marketplaces and caused major disruption: 
  • Execs could type their own correspondence quicker than dealing through a secretary or pool thereby eliminating the need for that occupation. 
  • Everybody at work and at home could benefit by having columns of numbers added and cross-checked. Fewer bookkeepers were needed and calculator sales went down.
  • The concept of “relational” was never before understood as it was when you could instantly find something using a “key” linking multiple databases together to "find" your information instead of serially processing until you hit it. 
Rodney Brooks, of Rethink Robotics, iRobot and MIT fame, has been preaching that if you provide a cheap enough plug and play robot to small shops and factories, the workers themselves will find uses for them doing the drudge work they don’t like to do thereby making them more likely to be more productive doing the things they do like to do. Because of all the worldwide media attention in the last few years, including the financial media, business people are beginning to grasp Rod’s message. And, as occurred in the ’90’s, once they understand the concepts, they can visualize how they can use them and then they become willing to buy. 

I see that happening now in labs, small shops and medium-sized businesses around the world. In business, it's becomming common knowledge that robotic assistance is needed to keep jobs, increase productivity and lower overall costs - manna for executives everywhere. 

Furthermore, I see movement from devices (appliances, tools, cars) to smart devices and then to interconnected smart devices and finally to fully autonomous robotic-like devices. This will require new definitions of what a robot is. Robotic-like devices already exist in many fields (finance, diagnostics, etc.). Progress is being held up by limitations in the software that it takes to perform artificial intelligence. But that field is progressing at an accelerating pace and being commercialized as rapidly (e.g., Stanford’s Andrew Ng is now chief scientist running Baidu’s artificial intelligence research labs in Sunnyvale and Beijing). 

The remainder of this decade has so many disruptive moments in store for it: 
  • The FAA’s regs on UAS and how that will play out in first responder situations and other applications
  • AI breakthroughs speeding up all the other developments 
  • Smart devices becoming robotic-like (appliances, cars, etc.) 
  • New marketplaces for robots (e.g., agriculture, construction, architecture, surveying, small shops and factories, search and rescue, healthcare, etc.) 
One can barely contemplate the disruption happening from 2020 on!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Our Relationship with the Uncanny Valley

By Rachel Greenberg**, AutomationGT 
Edited by Frank Tobe, The Robot Report 

Three humanoid robots (sitting) and their human counterparts. Photo: Gadgets & Gizmos Show
At present, the development and creation of humanoid robots accounts for only a small part of the robotics industry, yet humanoid robots capture the imagination in a particular way and as such, when many people talk about robots, they are really talking about humanoid robots. How and when and to what degree we choose to make our robots look more human demonstrates some interesting things about those of us who make, and those of us who buy, robots.

There is a well-known phenomenon in the design of human robots known as the “uncanny valley,” so named by robotics professor Masahiro Mori, and based on the Freudian concept of the “uncanny.” Generally, we tend to like things better as they become more like a living thing, as long as we still find it cute or goofy, really anything that makes it obvious that the robot isn’t too human. Professor Mori’s “uncanny valley” refers to the massive drop in user approval when robots get too close to looking human. However, on the other side of the valley, approval spikes again when we get to non-robotic humans of average appearance.

Prof. Mori's Uncanny Valley caricaturized by Carmen Rodriguez Peñamaria
Some researchers think that we respond negatively to these robots because they remind of us dead or diseased humans, both of which we have biological reason to avoid. However, if movies and science fiction are any indication, it’s evident that we are interested in bringing robots as close to humanness as we possibly can, regardless of the revulsion that many people feel. In part, we may just be interested in the questions and implications that this kind of pursuit of knowledge and development of technology would raise, but as a result we will likely end up producing robots that are fairly, if not totally, similar to human beings in some pretty remarkable ways.

The three biggest factors that appear to lead to a robot’s placement in the uncanny valley are physical appearance, movement, and speech. We tend to be repelled by robots that have false skin coverings, markedly human facial features and expressions, stilted movements, or stilted speech that may remind us of zombies. No matter how advanced we get with our humanoid robots, we can’t quite make it out of the uncanny valley. For an example, check out this video of the Geminoid DK. The Geminoid DK is one of the better examples of a robot that does a pretty good job of looking human, but as you watch it move, it’s easy to notice a bit of creepiness, even if it’s just for a minute, just because of some little motion or expression that isn’t quite right.

Until we have achieved robots that are perfect imitations of humans in appearance, movement, and speech, it seems that we will likely not be comfortable with the less perfect humanoid robots along the way. For now, we seem to be more interested in making robots that seem lifelike in only minor ways. We regularly see robots that are inspired by humans or some aspect of humans (like the industrial robotic arm, a design inspired by our own bodies), but we feel more comfortable with these human elements when they are for function, rather than form.

However, we do seem very interested in making robots more human in their intellect. There are lots of robots on the market now that in some small ways imitate humans in their behaviors and social abilities, though not in appearance. This seems to suggest that we want robots to be comprehensible to us as individuals that can act and react in seemingly natural ways, but become uncomfortable when they are intelligent but look too human. This drive to develop social robots suggests that we want robots with which we can develop maybe sentimental relationships, if not necessarily substantive relationships, and that to achieve this, it is more important that robots act human than look or sound human.

Some researchers suppose that our increased exposure to robots and to highly digitized faces in video games and movies may ultimately make us more comfortable with false human appearances, and as a result, it may ultimately be easier for us to accept robots that are near or in the uncanny valley. This may take some of the immediate pressure off of humanoid robot developers to develop perfectly human-looking robots, which will allow some leeway for experimentation and error as we work on the appearances of our social and interactive robots.

It’s apparent that we have a lot to figure out about ourselves and about humanoid robots before we accept them completely, but it may be an impossible task to ever push humanoid robots completely up out of the uncanny valley, or to jump over the uncanny valley altogether. It’s a daunting task to program a robot with enough capability just to be able to respond to people in a consistent way. It’s unfathomable how much care, detail -- and time -- it would take to create a robot that could be substantially closer to a human in all ways including appearance, movement, speech, and behavior.

The general progression of human technology tends to follow the pattern that if we can find a way to do it, we will do it, except in cases of obvious ethical or human consequence. And we live in an age in which technology progresses more quickly than we can readily adjust to it, and there’s no reason robots won’t follow this same pattern. Engineers will continue to work towards increasingly human robots and androids, and it will be fascinating to see how these robots will and won’t fit into the roles we designate for them.

*****

Masahiro Mori   Photo: IEEE Spectrum

Additional resources on the topic of Prof. Masahiro Mori's theory of the "Uncanny Valley":

  1. Robots Podcast interview with Hiroshi Ishigura
  2. New Russian entrant into creepiest robot face contest
  3. Professor Mori at IROS 2013 describing how he came to develop the uncanny valley theory
  4. Masahiro Mori on the Uncanny Valley and Beyond

*****

** Rachel Greenberg writes technical and marketing content for Automation GT in Carlsbad, CA. She is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, currently working out of the San Diego area.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Proletarian Robots Getting Cheaper to Exploit

by Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report


After laughing uncomfortably at the headline from The Moscow Times reporting about the recent Skolkovo Robot Conference, I parsed through the wording and found the intended meaning. But that process: from shock and incongruity, to amusement, through multiple second thoughts and a bit of research, to an understanding of the headline, is the same process I went through in relation to the conference in which I participated and spoke at.

My interpretation of that headline - removing any sense of political rhetoric - is that robots are getting cheaper and becoming more available to average consumers. This was one facet of the conference and exhibition, but not the main goal.

I’ve been to Russia four times on political consulting and speaking trips but have never seen or participated in anything like the Skolkovo Robotics Conference.

The host for the conference was the Skolkovo Technology Innovation Foundation, a partner in a newly chartered campus of buildings and people challenged with providing education, structure and inspiration for the incubation of Russian start-ups and spin-offs of all types and from all sources. It is government funded through 2020. MIT is collaborating with Skoltech for their Institute of Science and Technology, a private graduate research university. All are located in Skolkovo, a suburb of Moscow.

The campus at present consists of the building in which the conference was held, named the Hypercube, another under construction, and a third laid out to be constructed. The grounds are massive - perhaps 3/4 mile long by 1/2 mile wide. Even during the winter weekend of the conference, tractors, cranes and earth movers were at work moving materials, rocks and dirt from place to place.

Albert Efimov is in charge of all Skolkovo robotic activities which includes the recent weekend robotics conference. His other activities include attempting to inspire and educate Russian politicians, academics, business people, investors and prospective entrepreneurs about what the various Skolkovo entities are offering. Also he is charged with educating about how robotics offers the prospect for significant competitive change for Russian businesses and profits to their investors and entrepreneurs.

The event, as epitomized by The Moscow Times headline, contained all the confusion and mystery of Russia with some even more confusing facts: Russia doesn’t really have or use that many robots.
  • The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) tabulated 232 robots were sold into Russia in 2010, down 13% from 2009.
  • Of the 232, half were used for welding in the automotive and metalworking industries.
  • When added to existing robots, the overall total stock of robots as of the end of 2010 in Russia was just 1,058.
  • Very few service robots were produced in Russia and 100% of them were for the military, defense, rescue or space agencies.
  • Russia is the 3rd lowest in robot density globally. The bottom five are Croatia, Iran, Russia, India and Ukraine.
  • For reference purposes, the top five are Korea, Japan, Germany, Italy and Sweden. The US is 7th. 
Russia doesn’t presently have an academic system that supports and encourages entrepreneurship - which is why the Skolkovo project is so important.
  • Academics don’t push for the publishing of papers.
  • Nor do they encourage patenting or spin-offs.
  • One story I was told was about a professor who, when shown a new American robotic invention, said that his group had invented that 10 years ago. But when asked why he neither published it or spun it off as a commercial enterprise he said, "Why? We're academics!"
  • In the March 1st Moscow Times, in an interview with the owner of a large farming conglomerate, the owner was quoted as saying that he has a hard time finding qualified agricultural college graduates because many Russian universities lower their entrance qualifications to be able to fill quotas and get government funding. Consequently their graduates are under-educated and unqualified for technical positions.
When reviewing these facts, my first thought went to a memorable quote by a University of North Carolina associate professor, Terry Sullivan:
"When the only sure thing is change, The only real hope is imagination."
Albert is charged with inspiring Russians to imagine a future with robots and join with him at the Skolkovo Institute to make it happen. His official foundation title of Project Director of the Information Technology Cluster doesn't include his unofficial function as Chief Robot Technician.

Albert has his work cut out for him. I think he learned from this conference, as did I, that his next event needs a different set of presenters. His audiences need to meet and talk with successful robotic start-up CEO's and CTO's. Winners inspire others to be like them - to win. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

2nd International Skolkovo Robotics Conference to be held March 1-2 in Moscow

By Susan and Mike McFarlane, RobotGuide
Edited by Frank Tobe, The Robot Report
Technopark "Skolkovo", created in 2010, provides innovative companies participating in the project to
support the development of technology assets, contributing to their establishment in the Russian and global markets.
“Robotics holds a priority place on the Russian Communications and Media Ministry’s list of the most promising IT development lines, which is reflected in the IT Development Strategy prepared by the Ministry and approved by the Russian Government at the end of 2013. Our objective goes far beyond promoting research in this field. What we’ve got to do is to draw the attention of the wider public to robotics proper," said Mark Shmulevich, Deputy Minister of Communications and Mass Media.
In 2013, as part of the Moscow International Forum Open Innovations, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen and French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault took part in a discussion that centered on what governments can do to support innovation. 
Mr Medvedev said, “We have approved a Strategy of Russia’s Innovation Development to 2020 and expect that its implementation will result in innovations adding about one percentage point to our economic growth, starting from 2015. We suggest that innovation activity should be regarded as a positive-sum game, where all participants derive the maximum gain precisely from a strategy of cooperation. There can be no isolationism here, because it leads nowhere.”
Finnish Prime Minister Katainen suggested that hyper-connectedness means that Microsoft has become the symbol of Finnish innovation. Microsoft understood what it was doing when it bought Nokia – investing in a very important sector.

The three nations supported innovative development within their countries and see the importance of working with strategic partners - including other nation states and businesses - in order to support the best innovative development and their growing economies.

Sustainable economic development is often at the mercy of politics, election cycles and alterations in federal investment, all of which effect how dreams can be realised. Those in the room all seemed committed to finding the will to sustain world-beating innovation utilizing their information technology advantage and large talent pool of well-educated young people.

Robohub's Hallie Siegel attended last year's event and summarized her visit and the event in a post entitled "Russia looks inward and outward at Moscow's 2013 Open Innovations Forum."

Thus the 2014 Skolkovo Robotics Conference takes on a special importance in the pursuit of those goals. The 2-day agenda includes an exposition of robotics pilot projects and addressses and round-table discussions by notable international guests and partners.

"The venture market in 2012 was $46bn in the US and $1bn in Russia with growth by 2020 to $75bn in the US and $5.5bn in Russia," said Mikhail Shekhovstov from J'son & Partners Research.

The main funding methods available to innovative companies in Russia today include venture capital, business angels and seed accelerators. Although crowd funding and crowd investment was discussed at the 2013 conference, it is not really present yet in the Russian investment market. Business angels also are only just starting to become a part of the funding toolbox in Russia.

The importance of inspirational Russian investors such as Yuri Milner, Dmitry Grishin and Dmitry Itskov, and the global investment community is not ignored, but all recognise that they are few and far between.

Source: The Robot Report's Global Map of Robotic Providers

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Top Robotics-Related Stories of 2013

by Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report


Top Robotics-Related Stories of 2013 

(all appearing in The Robot Report)

  • Google sets up Robot Division; acquires 7 start ups plus Boston Dynamics to jump-start operations
  • ROBO ETF tracking Robo-stox index created to let investors invest in the robotics industry
  • WSJ, NYT, CBS 60-Minutes, CNN Money, NBC all focus on robotics - including two covers stories in Time Magazine and two 60-Minutes segments
  • China’s 5-year plan targets robotics as a growth industry and sets up specific areas for industrial robot manufacturing, service robot development and marketing and support centers
  • Mako Surgical sells to Stryker for $1.65 billion; Apple buys PrimeSense for $350 million; MakerBot sells to Stratasys for $403 million; $35 million to 3D Robotics to mainstream aerial robotics and Airware gets $10.7 million to build generic autopilot for UASs; Liquid Robotics gets $45 million to expand marketing and double their fleet of wave gliders and KUKA buys 51% of Reis Robotics 
  • Willow Garage closes; 7 spin-offs remain; Scott Hassan moves to and heads Suitable Technologies (of Beam telepresence robot fame)
  • Unbounded Robotics - one of those spin-offs - unveiled their UR1 mobile robot. $35,000 for a one-armed robot made by the same people that developed the Willow Garage PR2 (which sold for $400,000 when it came out in 2009)
  • Rethink Robotics and Universal Robots off to good start in SME marketplace - co-robots really are a big thing. SMEs aren’t the only marketplace: VW and BMW are both using new co-bots to augment worker capabilities in auto plants.
  • Smithsonian Channel Bionic Man documentary and museum exhibitions fascinate audiences with 50% bionic man
  • Crowd funding sites will soon let investors buy stock; just waiting for regs from SEC.
  • IFR reports for industrial robot industry shows good growth prospects for rest of decade; reports for service robotics industry shows promising growth particularly in medical and logistical systems making up for the decline in defense spending

Lower-key Stories:

  • First use of robotic anesthesiologist gives rise to a whole new marketplace
  • Beams used for telepresence at trade show
  • FoxBot line of robots by Foxconn slowly entering Foxconn factories
  • Russia focusing on robotics startups and innovation in general
  • New Kinect completely redone; windfall for robotics
  • X-47B unmanned jet takes off and lands from aircraft carrier
  • List of hardware accelerators growing as are incubators and angel investors
  • ROS-Industrial list of partners growing exponentially
  • Updated Roadmap for US Robotics released and presented to Congressional Caucus
  • Intuitive Surgical regularly pummeled in news for a variety of reasons

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Rethink Robotics is downsizing

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

A sad day at Rethink Robotics. 21 jobs have been cut in Rethink's first layoff.

Although Rethink Robotics is downsizing, their action is not indicative of the robotics industry which is booming and hiring.

The Boston Globe reported that Rethink Robotics, maker of the $22,000 Baxter 2-armed robot, has cut 21 jobs from their staff of approximately 90.

In the Boston Globe article Rethink CEO Scott Eckert said:
The layoffs are the result of Rethink deciding to focus on the market segments that have been most receptive to Baxter since its launch: plastics manufacturing, consumer goods packaging, warehousing and logistics. Our volume trends are encouraging, our customer pipeline is encouraging, and we expect to see significant growth in 2014, however we will be able to achieve that in a more focused manner with fewer resources.
Since 2005, Rethink Robotics (previously named Heartland Robotics) has taken in $73.5 million from Boston-based VCs and Bezos Expeditions (the personal investment fund of Jeff Bezos), the most recent $11.5 million in November, 2013 (source: CrunchBase).

Rethink Robotics' Rodney Brooks
Rethink Chairman and Chief Technology Officer Rodney Brooks has been an energetic and eloquent spokesman for building and selling an affordable, safe and easy to train plug and play robot to help US manufacturers -- particularly smaller shops and factories. With such a robot, Brooks assured, these businesses could increase productivity and keep jobs from migrating offshore. The two-armed Baxter robot is his vision. Thus it comes as a big surprise that Rethink needs to retrench their operations and cut 23+% of their staff to focus on the few industry sectors in which they have deployed robots.

Brooks has been right on the mark in describing the needs of small and medium-sized manufacturers. He's defined the marketplace, defined their needs, and gotten people to accept that an easy-to-train robot can help improve productivity, be safe to work alongside and have affordable metrics. He's even built and funded a company that ramped up to be able to produce 1,000 of these robots a year. But the robot itself doesn't measure up to those needs at present. It's been a work in progress -- a miraculous achievement but one not fully ready for factory operations. Perhaps this highly publicized ramping up has clouded the focus on improving the product to live up to their promise (and the sizzle that Brooks has been selling).

Baxter's main competitor has many of the same positive characteristics as Baxter: relatively low cost, it's safe to work alongside humans, it's plug and play, and training is relatively easy. Universal Robot's UR line of robots cost a bit more and only have one arm. However, they work much faster, with more precision, can carry a heavier load and are engineered to have a longer work life.

Universal Robots has sold 2,500+ robots in 50+ countries through more than 200 distributors in the last five years. The Danish robot manufacturer added 50 people in 2013, a 100% increase in the company staff currently totaling 97 worldwide, and is hiring for 2014. They are ramping up to move into larger facilities with a much greater manufacturing capability.

Ed Mullen, the company’s National Sales Manager in North America attributes the growth of Universal Robots to the quality and capability of the robots the company has been able to create. "They meet the expectations of SMEs: a collaborative, user-friendly robot presenting a plug&play automation solution for a wide range of industries. Not only have we been able to penetrate large accounts -- supplying the first collaborative robots to BMW and VW -- we've also been able to get our robots on the shop floors of many small and medium sized businesses that never thought they'd be able to employ a robot due to cost and complexity."

With financial news reporting big robotic acquisitions by Stryker ($1.5 billion for MAKO Surgical Robotics), Apple ($350 million for PrimeSense) and Google which has set up a robotics division and seeded it with seven start-ups and an eighth acquisition announced today - Boston Dynamics (of Big Dog, Cheetah and ATLAS fame) - it seems clear that the layoff at Rethink is not indicative of the robotics industry in general. In fact, there's a hiring boom searching for robotics talent country-wide.

How can it be that such a prominent headliner as Rethink Robotics is regrouping? Four likely answers: (1) they were trying to do too much with too many people; (2) they were rushed to market by their VC investors; (3) they provided a product (the Baxter robot) that offered too much but didn't do it too well; and (4) they haven't yet finished the development of their product so that it delivers what the buyers want and need: a fast, safe, flexible, cheap and easy to train co-robot.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Apple, Amazon and now Google: It's a pretty exciting time for robotics!

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

There is serious momentum in robotics these days evidenced by recent news from Apple, Amazon and Google:
  • Apple announced that they were investing $10.5 billion in supply chain robots and automation equipment and recently confirmed their acquisition of PrimeSense for $350 million (PrimeSense is the developer of the Kinnect 3D system used by MS Xbox).
  • Amazon, in a CBS 60 Minutes piece which aired last Sunday, displayed a new concept delivery system using an octocopter. Remember that in 2012 Amazon spent $750 million to acquire Kiva Systems, the robot technology enabling robotically-delivered goods to a picker/packer.
  • And now Google has set up a robotics division headed by the man behind the Android operating system, Andy Rubin. In Rubin's first six months he has acquired seven robotic companies to jump start his new operation.
  • UPDATE 12-14-13: Google confirms its eighth acquisition: Boston Dynamics. The new acquisition is an engineering company that specializes in building dynamic robots and software for human simulation. The acquisition adds 80+ technicians, engineers and scientists to the new Google Robots Division talent pool - plus a new location.
What's it all mean?

First, some details.
Andy Rubin and Meka robot.
  • From a NY Times article by John Markoff interviewing Google's Andy Rubin:
    • Google acquired 7 tech companies in the last 6 months. Schaft, a Japanese start-up developing a humanoid robot; Industrial Perception, a Silicon Valley start-up that developed a computer vision system for loading and unloading trucks; Meka Robotics, a robot developer for academia; Redwood Robotics, a start-up intended to compete with the Baxter robot (and others) entering the small and medium-sized shop and factory marketplace; Bot & Dolly, a maker of robotic camera systems used for special effects such as in the movie "Gravity;" Autofuss, a design and marketing firm and a partner in Bot & Dolly; and Holomni, a maker of powered caster modules for omnidirectional vehicles.
    • Although Google won't disclose their plans, the article suggests that the company's initial market will be in manufacturing, e.g., electronics assembly which is mostly done by hand. "Manufacturing and logistics markets not being served by today's robotic technologies are clear opportunity markets," said Rubin.
    • The article suggests that the new Google robots will be able to automate any or all of the processes from the supply chain to the distribution channels to the consumer's front door thereby creating a massive opportunity.
    • Google is already experimenting with urban deliveries including making home deliveries for companies like Target, Walgreens and others.
    • According to Markoff, "Mr. Rubin said he had pondered the possibility of a commercial effort in robotics for more than a decade. He has only recently come to think that a range of technologies have matured to the point where new kinds of automated systems can be commercialized."
  • From The SFGate Tech Chronicles by James Temple:
    • Google is transforming itself in many ways including its new robotics division. Its constantly transforming its search engine into a sophisticated learning machine using artificial intelligence tools. Some of that AI talent is moving over to the new Robotics Division.
    • It's been hiring super brains such as Ray Kurzweil and Peter Norvig and inhouse star Andy Rubin to head groups and divisions moving toward product development and even hardware manufacturing (remember that Google owns Motorola - both a ready-made client for assembly and materials handling robots and a resource of factories, equipment and manpower).
    • "Google's move into robotics is likely to draw renewed attention and money into the space," said Brian Gerkey in the article. "It's a pretty exciting day for robotics when someone like Google makes an investment like that in robots, others are likely to follow suit. It can only spur investment and innovation."
  • From Bloomberg News by Adam Satariano:
    • Apple is investing $10.5 billion in new technologies and robotics to polish the new iPhone 5C's colored plastic cover, to laser and CNC machines to carve the MacBook's aluminum body, and for testing and inspection gear for iPhone and iPad lenses.
    • Apple invested $6.5 billion on similar robotics and factory automation equipment in their previous fiscal year.
    • Samsung has indicated it plans to spend $22 billion in capital expenditures this year but didn't disclose any further details.
  • For a review of the CBS 60 Minutes interview of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Charlie Rose, see my previous post, "Jeff Bezos Reaches for Tip of UAS Iceberg."
  • UPDATE 12-14-13: From a NY Times article by John Markoff about the Boston Dynamics acquisition:
    • Markoff says: "The deal is also the clearest indication yet that Google is intent on building a new class of autonomous systems that might do anything from warehouse work to package delivery and even elder care."
    • Boston Dynamics, a 1992 spin-off from MIT, has been a great resource for youTube videos of wild robots. Their Big Dog video has been watched by more than 15 million viewers; their ATLAS robot video, the base robot given to the DARPA Robotics Challenge teams - a challenge to speed development of robotics technology for disaster response - has already passed the 2.5 million mark.
    • This is not an insignificant acquisiton. An ongoing business employing 80+ highly paid engineers and scientists has to have cost Google a very high amount, perhaps in the low 9 figures.
    • Boston Dynamic's CEO and founder Marc Raibert was quoted in the article: "I am excited by Andy and Google's ability to think very, very big, with the resources to make it happen."
What's all this mean? 

I think the yellow highlighted quote from Brian Gerkey sums up all these investments nicely: It's a pretty exciting day for robotics when Google, Apple and Amazon ALL invest in robots and robotics. Others are likely to follow spurring further investment and innovation. Up until now, the big four of industrial robotics (KUKA, Fanuc, ABB and Yaskawa Motoman) were all foreign firms while two smaller American firms (iRobot and Intuitive Surgical) led the emerging service new-tech robotics sector. The remainder of this decade will be filled with amazing new robotics products from a variety of new providers -- including Apple, Amazon and Google.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Jeff Bezos Reaches For Tip of UAS Iceberg

Charlie Rose.
Photo courtesy of CBS News.
By Frank Tobe, Editor/Publisher, The Robot Report

On Sunday, Charlie Rose from CBS News 60 Minutes, interviewed Jeff Bezos about what is next for Amazon, the world's largest online retailer with more than 225 million customers.

Volume can reach 300 items a second on special sales days and that volume feeds the activities at 96 Amazon warehouse/distribution centers around the world. Amazon's goal is to sell everything to everyone and their warehousing and shipping methods have been of constant interest because of their success at being able to deliver as promised. For robotics-interested people, Amazon acquired Kiva Systems and their robotic shelf-to-picker system for $750 million two years ago. Interestingly, in this 60 Minutes interview, no mention was made of Kiva or that method of pick and pack. [Why was that?]

"The secret is we are on our 7th generation of fulfillment centers - and we've gotten better every time," Bezos said during the interview. An example of this type of improvement is that Amazon can now store twice as many goods in its centers as it did 5 years ago.

A portion of the 60 Minutes piece was about Amazon and its web services group AWS. Little known facts emerged from this part of the interview: AWS hosts Netflix and the CIA as well as providing the cloud for itself and other big enterprises and governmental institutions.

Bezos straight talk was evident throughout. Consider this example:
Charlie Rose: A lotta small book publishers and other smaller companies worry that the power of Amazon gives them no chance. 
Jeff Bezos: You gotta earn your keep in this world. When you invent something new, if customers come to the party, it’s disruptive to the old way. The Internet is disrupting every media industry. People can complain about that, but complaining is not a strategy. And Amazon is not happening to book selling, the future is happening to book selling.
Jeff Bezos.
Photo courtesy of CBS News 60 Minutes.
In an Overtime piece one can also see the genius in Bezos when he described the process of moving so many goods through the system - including the new PrimeAir: "It's a symphony of people, a symphony of software and... a symphony of robots."

Amazon has a not-so-secret lab in Silicon Valley, Lab 126. Charlie Rose pressed Bezos for any big surprises that might be forthcoming and Bezos showed him their new concept delivery system using an octocopter. The robot aircraft could haul a package of up to 5 pounds (approximately 86% of Amazon's sales fit this category) and autonomously deliver it within a 10-mile radius from the fulfillment center. Branded as Amazon PrimeAir, a video showing how it works has already been viewed by over 9.5 million youTube viewers.

Photo courtesy of CBS News 60 Minutes.
Media of all types had a field day with the 60 Minutes broadcast and the video of Amazon PrimeAir in action. Amongst the most prominent of the naysayers was CNN Money who didn't see the bigger, long-term picture Bezos is planning for.
The world isn't ready for Amazon drones. Besides being illegal, the sensor technology to avoid collisions isn't there yet.
Certainly the best one-liner came from a Tweet from a reporter at Bezos' own Washington Post: "So basically free stuff from Amazon if you're a good shot with a rifle."

Most seemed to miss the point that concept cars, planes and... octocopters are needed ideas awaiting technologies to fill in the gaps which will turn the concept into economic reality and a feasible product.

Amongst the more informed, Michael Toscano, President of AUVSI, commented:
Amazon's concept delivery system demonstrates the promise of unmanned aircraft systems. It underscores how this innovative technology will transform the way industries operate. Whether it is improving agriculture output, helping first responders, advancing scientific research, or making business more efficient, UAS are capable of saving time, money and lives. 
While Amazon demonstrated that deliveries via UAS are technically feasible, the commercial use of UAS is currently prohibited in the United States. The FAA, however, is currently working to establish rules for commercial use. Even Amazon has acknowledged the regulatory framework needs to be in place before it can launch its service, and this is going to take until at least 2015. 
Like many other companies and industries, Amazon is testing UAS now so that it can be ready to recognize the benefits of the technology once UAS are fully integrated into the U.S. airspace in the coming years. 
The wider use of UAS will have a huge economic impact in the U.S. for both the public and commercial sectors. Our economic study released earlier this year found that the UAS industry will have an $82 billion economic impact and create more than 100,000 jobs in the first decade after integration.
Certainly there will be many technological, insurance and regulatory hurdles before we see a fleet of Amazon PrimeAir, or FedEx Today, or even Papa John Pizza Express. With the endorsement of Jeff Bezos, the tip of the iceberg has been reached and it's all downhill from there. His optimistic viewpoint is that we'll see Amazon PrimeAir in four to five years.