Saturday, December 26, 2009

Robotics 2009 - A Review

Singularity Hub, a website reporting advances in nanotechnology, genetics, biology, AI, aging and robotics, presented their 2009 Best Robots pictorial, a graphic review of some of the most interesting robots in the news in 2009.  A few of the entries were frivolous or  prototypes with no prospect of near-term commercialization, and there were some major omissions, but overall it gives a favorable impression of the progress made during 2009 - and prospects for the future - in robotics. It made me think that it might be time to review my own progress through 2009.

In June, 2008, I began to research the robotics industry - and the future of robotics - with an eye toward selectively investing in publicly-traded or privately held robotics businesses. I set up The Robot Report as an adjunct of my research - to share the data I've collected and to provide a visual method to track the business of robotics.  I've also been compiling a database of robotic companies and facilities worldwide and developed an industry chart (RoboStox™) of publicly-traded service and industrial robotic companies from which to compare their change to that of the NASDAQ and the DJIA indexes. RoboStox™is updated and recapped monthly on The Robot Report.

My research was necessary because my stock brokers didn't have a list of companies involved in robotics. They had a few stock tips but nothing comprehensive about the industry. Nor was there a fund or index for the industry.  Not even a knowledgeable specialist or quant. I realized that I had to do the legwork myself. It's been an intensive project that has taken me to Korea, Germany, Japan, and all over the Internet. My eyesight has suffered but not my mind. I love what I'm doing and discovering.

September 2008 was right about the time that the economic crisis really hit. Stocks took their second and biggest dive. People were on the edge of panic. Things hidden behind years of obfuscation became painfully visible in the media.

Robotic stocks tumbled that September. Fell like bricks. But I was still optimistic. I thought that by the time I really grasped the business of robotics, I'd be able to select the good from the chaff, and ride the wave back up, should it ever happen.

Thus far I've identified more than 600 companies (worldwide) that produce robotic products, 150 of which are publicly traded. Of the 600, many are conglomerates or companies where robotics aren't their primary business - ABB is an example. Less than 1/3 of ABB revenue is from robotics, yet ABB is one of the major robotics providers in the world.  Many of the companies aren't listed on American exchanges. My database has another 650 companies, some of which are public, that are ancillary to the industry providing everything from engineering, integration, software, vision systems and other necessary components to purely educational and research facilities. I have another 200 UAV providers on hold because many are unlikely to become commercially viable due to restrictions in airspace and the probability that countless years will pass before those limitations are lifted.

Observations from 2009:
  • Strategic funding toward a robotics industry via a roadmap is non-existant in the U.S. but not in Korea, Japan and the EU. Their "roadmaps" have been designed, plotted out, funded, the public-private groups selected, and the tasks and research are underway.  Korea's $1.25 billion Frontier Program has an overall goal of a robot in every household and for Korea to become the primary worldwide provider of industrial robots by 2018. Japan's $100 million transition to service robotics is reflected in a variety of prototype elder and home care robots and smaller multi-functional assistance robots. The EU has funded (at least $600 million) for a variety of public-private consortiums in the area of cognitive systems, human-robot and robot-robot interaction.
  • In America, we are many years behind.  Our "roadmap" was presented to a congressional caucus in February but has yet to be approved or funded.  If it does get approved and then funded, it is unlikely to get into the budget until FY 2013 or 2014.  As an American, I find this to be quite disturbing.
  • Pragmatic funding for robotics does happen in the U.S. particularly for defense through DARPA, space, and from a select few individual entrepreneurs.
  • Although there is and will be stimulus for high tech from the 2009 Economic Stimulus Bill, there is NONE for robotics; rather, there's money for healthcare digitization, enhancing the national broadband system and for energy efficiency (mostly in the form of grants and tax credits) and the ARPA-E grants for the development of enhanced battery technologies, carbon capture and other non-robotic research.
  • Industrial robot producers have been diversifying and consolidating into the service sector and improving their products by making them lighter, more capable, less requiring of a safety cage, and easily trained.
  • Like other companies suffering the economic crisis, orders have been down and employee cuts were necessary.  But that trend appears to be reversing in the services sector.
  • Proof of this last point came from job offer information from LinkedIn and the Robotics-Worldwide mailing list - sources for monitoring such offerings.  One can see particular progress in the areas of bionics, motion vision, human-robot and robot-robot communication, motion flexibility, and artificial intelligence.  
  • Worldwide robotics stocks - in anticipation of a return to economic normalcy - have recouped much of their losses from lows reached early this year.  Nevertheless, almost all are still lower than they were in 2008.
  • Other researchers are getting on the robotics bandwagon in addition to The Robot Report.  Three new players offered pay-for material about the industry in 2009. The Robot Report, of course, is free.
Thus 2009 was a year of retrenchment for industrial robotic suppliers - product improvements and movement toward new products in the service robotics sector.  Industrial orders may have been down, but companies making the move to the service sector are hiring and marketing.  One exception to this has been in defense, space and surveillance where orders and sales are up.  Although news reports make it appear to be an American thing, it really is a worldwide phenomenon.  Countries from Israel to South Africa, from Brazil to China, are all developing security and defense bots of one type or another.

For me, 2009 was a year of research, database development and learning.  As the year progressed I began to focus on areas of particular appeal: rehabilitative robotics, agricultural robots, and medium-priced robotic toys to name a few.  People and companies began to discuss their financial needs with me and my collection of NDA's is growing.  Hopefully 2010 will be the year where everything robotic gels and we all have an exiting and prosperous robotics New Year.  One can only hope!

PS: 'Christmas Fun with Electronic Robots' was the cover story on the now-defunct Popular Electronics magazine back in December, 1958 - 51 years ago.  The issue sold for 35 cents!  I scanned and Photoshopped the cover into the graphic shown above.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Revelations from Tokyo

iREX2009 (International Robot Exposition 2009) held at the Tokyo Big Sight Convention Center in Tokyo November 25-28, was, to many, somewhat of a disappointment. The effects of the worldwide economic crisis appeared to have taken their toll on participation and attendance.

But from my point of view, things were quite different.  There was the fun of traveling to an exotic city, seeing all the different sights, experiencing the subways and noodle cafes and all the wonderful tastes and smells. There was the pleasure of meeting new people, talking about robotics and seeing the robots do their stuff.  And it was a terrific learning experience.  On the other hand, except for hobbyists and young peoples' contests, the excitement that you normally see in the crowds as they gather around the most interesting exhibit(s) at trade shows appeared to be missing.

There were few exhibitors that I hadn't already reported upon and included in The Robot Report's database of stories and links.  Nevertheless there were many noteworthy displays, some of which are discussed below.

Here is a slideshow of my photos to give you a feel for the show, it's colors and crowds.  Slide #1, of the Statue of Liberty - Tokyo version - was taken near the convention center and had a spectacular view back across Rainbow Bridge to central Tokyo and Tokyo Tower.

Robot --> robot interaction:  Robot-robot interaction (where multiple robots work together to achieve a common goal) was featured by most of the major industrial robot manufacturers. From the programmable dancing robots to the larger arms and hands that pass things to other robots, many companies presented where they were and what they were planning to offer.  Yaskawa and Kawada's robots (shown in the slideshow) worked, danced, moved in sync and were very stylish and colorful.

Robot --> human interaction:  (The enabling interfaces so that humans and robots can communicate.)  In the area of robot-human interaction, haptics and speech processing were shown in many different booths. Nevertheless, preprogrammed routines still control most robot activities although many manufacturers presented their prototype and edutainment robots which displayed every form of communication methodology.

Arms, grippers and hands:  There were many new thinner, smaller and very flexible arms including some very capable lab robots and very stylish tabletops. Incremental improvements in arms and grippers were displayed - like the flex-pickers from ABB and Fanuc and a wide array of hand-like grippers and the very capable grippers from Kawasaki and Panasonic.  KUKA invited people to their Tokyo headquarters to see their new sleekly designed arm unit (rightmost, above).

Sensors and vision systems were everywhere. Many 3D vision units were displayed. However, real-time sensing and perception -- the conversion to and interpretation of the digital results of the sensors and vision systems -- as has been coming out of research labs around the world, was lacking at the show.

Some achievements are now almost taken for granted and omitted or minimized from the show: navigation, mobility platforms and safety systems in particular. An infrared GPS navigation system from Toyo was one of the few exceptions.

Software normalization may be necessary, but there were so many competing software systems (SRI's Karto and Willow Garage's ROS to cite two that stood out) that standardization seems a long way off.

Many companies were offering virtualization software [a very necessary step in the acceptance and use of robotic surgery devices] for manufacturing, navigation and surgeries.

Service robots of all types were displayed: fire-fighting robots, surveillance scouts, security patrol bots, pipe cleaners, receptionists, edutainers and guides, etc.  One stand-out, ripe for commercial deployment, was Sumitomo's new line of autonomous industrial cleaning robots (right).
In one of the classes, KUKA and EUROP's Rainer Bischoff said, "Technology, economics and customer demand are re-shaping the future of robotics into one of service and human interaction." These sentiments were reflected in the actions of most of the major industrial manufacturers who were showing prototypes of their future service robot products as were a few Japanese technical universities (like the University of Tokyo KobaLab's pretty android receptionist Saya).
Another interesting prototype is Mitsubishi's Wakamaru robot.  Although not available for sale to individuals, it is available for universities, research projects and companies and is promoted as the first human-size robot that can provide companionship, or function as a care-taker or house sitter.  It's capabilities are similar to the other prototypes: recharges itself, call or e-mail if it notices a problem, continuous access to the Internet, voice and face recognition, and a dictionary able to recognize 10,000 words.

Healthcare, eldercare and medical robotics: Just as Intuitive Surgical was getting Japan's FDA approval to begin selling their da Vinci systems in Japan, Japan was preparing their own entry for trials and approvals in the EU and US (see below and in the slideshow).

The show had many healthcare robots from university labs and companies at varying stages of development. Yurina's Care Robot is a fascinating device for moving disabled people from and to beds and chairs. KobaLabs displayed robotic walking assistants. There were various exoskeletons shown: one from Tokyo's Institute of Technology enabled a person to lift and carry extraordinary amounts of heavy packages.  Cyberdyne was there with their new line of rental exoskeletons. Paro and Beatbot rehabilitation robots got lots of attention.

Concluding remarks: Two stories caught my attention during the show: one reported upon a GA Tech survey which found that older adults are more amenable than younger ones -- 77% to 67% -- to having a robot "perform critical monitoring tasks that would require little interaction between the robot and the human." The findings represent a significant heads up for the eldercare robotics industry and appeared to be reflected at iREX2009.

The second story, from the Atlantic, suggested that robotic takeover of repetitive, dull, dirty and dangerous jobs is having a serious impact on America's unskilled labor force and, combined with a continuing focus on cost-cutting and productivity increases, is going to have a large and continuing destabilizing effect on America's economy.

The fear of job losses, coupled with America's lack of investment in STEM education and research (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), is propelling the robotics industry to countries that already have funded robotics roadmaps designed and being implemented. In America, the roadmap was presented last February and is still being discussed. It's a long way from being funded.  President Obama has been making the rounds talking about strategic investments to help with STEM -- and many companies are getting onboard (iRobot just started a new program for the advancement of robotics knowledge) -- but will it be enough to tip the scales from the destabilizing effects suggested in the Atlantic story?  It was this pessimistic spin that was on the lips of the English speaking people I talked with. Additionally, America's lack of direction in robotics appeared to be reflected in the few American companies displaying their products at the show.

I left iREX with a bag full of robotics literature and a good feeling toward all the people I met and talked with.  I learned and saw things from the perspective of the biggest players in the field and I am grateful for the overall experience. And I'm anxious to return... I was so busy that I didn't have time to see the cult movie "RoboGeisha" (which has English sub-titles)!