Monday, November 1, 2010

The Robot Report's 2010 Top Robotic Consumer Products Gift List

Illustratrion from the cover of
Popular Electronics Magazine, December, 1958

With so many families struggling to make ends meet this holiday season, the most welcome Christmas gifts likely will be practical ones that provide a helpful service. That being the case, don't overlook the robots! They never tire of working for you and some can also be programmed to sing a medley of Christmas songs including “Jingle Bells” and “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”
There are robots that will vacuum your floors, keep your family car at a safe distance from the car ahead of it, fetch you a beer from your refrigerator, or stand you to a game of pool.  There are even kits for build-it-yourself robots who will perform a variety of tasks depending on what you assign them to do.

So says Frank Tobe, of Santa Barbara, CA, editor and publisher of The Robot Report, a continuously updated Internet magazine you can read at that brings readers the latest information about the constantly expanding world of robots from toys and tools to hospital operating rooms and battlefields. 

For Mom:
iRobot Roomba and Neato Robotic Vacuum System
For example, you can program robot vacuum cleaners to do all your floors while you're out and come home to a fresh-looking house. There's Neato, priced at $399, and iRobot Roomba, for about $380 "that show off what a single-purpose robot can do," Tobe says. "They can navigate around the room without breaking anything and operate seamlessly on different types of floor surfaces."

For Dad:
Adaptive Cruise Control
Available as an option from most car companies
A robotic device that will make your family car safer is adaptive cruise control. Utilizing radar that is installed in your front grill, the device will automatically slow your car down if you are getting too close to the vehicle ahead of you. The version for a Ford is about $295 and the one for a Mercedes-Benz is $2,900 (which also includes parking assistance). "This is something every motorist who drives a car should have, particularly if you do long-distance driving," Tobe says.

For robotically interested:
LEGO Mindstorm
Robot Kit
A do-it-yourself robot kit is available from LEGO Mindstorms NXT 2.0 that you can use to build as many as four robots that will do your bidding. LEGO provides 619 pieces and will teach you programming as you go along. It contains software sensors so that the robots can see, move (using motion detectors), and speak. "You can build it in the form of a humanoid or an alligator," Tobe says. "It's up to you and your imagination and kids as young as 10 should be able to construct with it. If you can dream it, you can build it." List price is $279.

For all ages:
Parrot's AR.Drone Quadricopter
Rated #1 Consumer Electronics Product of 2010
More on the fun side is the Parrot AR.Drone QuadriCopter, a remote-controlled flying-and-hovering machine that Tobe says "combines the best of many worlds, including autonomous flying, video gaming and augmented reality." It can be controlled by an iPhone, iPad or iTouch and features a number of sensors including frontal and vertical cameras and an altimeter so that the controller can set the flight height. This retails for $299.

For grandparents and their grandkids:
Pleo Dinosaur - previously Ugobe;
new version from Innvo Labs
Grandparents and their grandkids are showing a keen interest in Pleo, a scientifically accurate baby dinosaur "that looks, moves, sounds, and behaves like a living creature." Tobe says, "It is fully aware and cognitive and explores its environment and interacts with people. Pleo is equipped with sensors for sight, sound and touch. It feels joy, sorrow, anger and annoyance and expresses itself with realistic dinosaur sounds." Personality downloads include Holiday Pleo – where petting Pleo in a certain place makes him change his Christmas tune.  A joy toy at $299.

For pre-teen boys:
WowWee's RoboRaptor with control unit
Speaking of dinosaurs, there's WowWee Roboraptor, a predatory robot "with instincts to match his wild technology," Tobe says. "His mood determines his behavior. He'll go into predatory mode, nervous and cautious mode, or friendly, playful mode, depending on how he wakes up. A laser tracking system allows you to draw his path and RoboRaptor will follow it without banging into objects like table legs.” For pre-teen boys. Price: $59. 

For pre-teen girls:
Penbo and her baby Bebe
Specially designed for pre-teen girls is Bossa Nova’s Penbo, a Robotic Penguin and her baby that is affectionate to you and her baby. She responds to your touch and sound and speaks "Penguish," yes, 'Penguish." Press Penbo's ear and an egg magically appears from her pouch. Penbo calls for, and interacts with, her baby, plays hide-and-seek and peek-a-boo baby games and rocks her baby to sleep. Price: $82.

For little kids:
Zhu Zhu hamsters
For the little kids, ages 4 to 8, is Zhu Zhu Hamster, which has its own unique personality and whimsical sounds. "You can pet them, love them, and hear them chatter," Tobe says. "It's fun for children to provide them with accessories and watch them interact on their own timetable and agenda."  Price: about $37 with accessories.

For millionaires and rich alumni:
Willow Garage's PR2
Personal Robot
Finally, for the millionaire who has everything but doesn't care to put another servant on the payroll (or the alumni wanting to make a useful contribution to his or her alma mater’s robotics lab), there's the class act of personal robot servants called PR2 from Silicon Valley’s Willow Garage (the "garage" in the name referring to the number of successful new products that got started in entrepreneur's garages). “This life-sized robot is able to navigate in human environments and has the dexterity to grasp and manipulate objects in those environments," Tobe says. "It can clean up with a cart, fetch a beer from the refrigerator, play a respectable game of pool and is programmable to meet your needs and ideas at any level." The PR2 robot comes with open-source free software and lists for $400,000.

Further information on the above gifts may be found on The Robot Report, which gathers industry news, tracks the business of robotics, and has developed proprietary (ROBO-STOX™) methods to compare robot stock performance to the NASDAQ Composite Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The publication also makes available a comprehensive world-wide database of public and private firms and research facilities involved with the robotics industry.

Media Information: Media interviews, contact Frank Tobe at The Robot Report,, or Sherwood Ross, media consultant to The Robot Report, at or (305) 205-8281.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Do robots take away jobs or just change the mix of workers?

All of us are thinking about jobs and the economy, and those of us that are techno-centric are also concerned about the discussion as to whether robots take away jobs -- or not. It's an argument that's been going on since the invention of robots. Hollywood has vilified robots while Asians think of them reverently. Nevertheless, the question is valid and disruptive. Disruptive in the sense that jobs are lost when a superior technology emerges - think workhorses when cars started to be mass-marketed. Our present digital era is a disruptive one.

Distributing the workload increases skill levels - think Microsoft Word versus stand-alone word processors, or travel agents when e-tickets and online airline websites surfaced.

Jeanne Dietsch, CEO of MobileRobots, said in her blog earlier this year:
Did people lose jobs to computers? Yes, a number of secretaries had to upgrade their skills, and executives who refused to learn to type had a tough time of it, just to cite two examples. But these jobs were replaced by tens of thousands of high-paying software engineering positions, plus computer installers, computer operators, data storage firms and more.
A very thoughtful and well researched paper about jobs and automation appeared in Good Magazine's "Automation Insurance: Robots Are Replacing Middle Class Jobs:
MIT economist David Autor
MIT economist David Autor published a report that looked at the shifting employment landscape in America. He came to this scary conclusion: Our workforce is splitting in two. The number of high-skill, high-income jobs (think lawyers or research scientists or managers) is growing. So is the number of low-skill, low-income jobs (think food preparation or security guards). Those jobs in the middle? They’re disappearing. Autor calls it “the polarization of job opportunities.” 
Princeton economist Paul Krugman is out there telling Congress to spend more money to create jobs. The former secretary of labor Robert Reich is arguing for tax breaks for the bottom brackets so people can buy stuff again. Here’s the thing, though: The erosion of the middle class is a phenomenon that’s bigger than the Great Recession. Middle-range jobs have been getting scarcer since the late 1970s, and wages for the ones that are still around have remained stagnant. 
In his report, Autor says that a leading explanation for the disappearance of the middle class is “ongoing automation and off-shoring of middle-skilled ‘routine’ tasks that were formerly performed primarily by workers with moderate education (a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree).” Routine tasks, he explains, are ones that “can be carried out successfully by either a computer executing a program or, alternatively, by a comparatively less-educated worker in a developing country.”

The culprit, in other words, is technology. The hard truth—and you don’t see it addressed in news reports—is that the middle class is disappearing in large part because technology is rendering middle-class skills obsolete. 
People say America doesn’t make anything anymore, but that’s not true. With the exception of a few short lapses, manufacturing output has been on the rise since the 1980s. What is true is that industrial robots have been carrying ever more of the manufacturing burden on their steely shoulders since they appeared in the 1950s. Today, a Japanese company called Fanuc, Ltd., has industrial robots making other industrial robots in a “lights out” factory. (That’s the somewhat unsettling term for a fully automated production facility where you don’t need lights because you don’t need humans.)
Research findings like this are just part of the current dialogue about whether robots are truly taking away jobs or just redistributing the workforce and increasing productivity.

Omitted from Autor's report, however, was that part of the dialogue which deals with investments in education and research and development. Because of intense focus (some might say greedy) on quarterly profits and production efficiencies to meet those quarterly quotas, we've had a decade where R & D has either been reduced or off-shored. Further, because of wars and other reasons, there's been less investment in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education - budget cuts - although the Obama Administration has been showing signs of renewed interest in this area in the last few months.

John Dulchinos, CEO, Adept
Earlier this year John Dulchinos, the CEO of Adept, during an interview with GetRobo's Noriko Kageki, made a dramatic observation:
Did you know that there are a billion cell phones per year being made globally of which 200-300 million are sold in the U.S. but not a single one is built in the US? Ten years ago that was not the case. 
If the industry can’t remain competitive, then there are no jobs. And robots are automating tasks no longer done by hand.  But in almost all cases those people are redeployed into other applications in the plant and allow the plant to grow and get even more efficient.
Foxconn workers
Sad but true. Even iPhones (and iPads, Macs and iPods) are manufactured in China. As many as 400,000 of the workers at Foxconn produce Apple products. (Foxconn has been in the news because that's the place where there were so many suicides and suicide attempts.) Thus the question is whether companies can compete from nearby manufacturing facilities or must they, in order to produce a low-cost product, resort to off-shoring. Many think that robotics and government investments in STEM education and vocational retraining can help the economy rather than enlarge the disparity described by Autor.

British pottery manufacturer Wade Ceramics is one such proponent of stay-at-home automation, and says Wade can now make some of its products for the same costs as firms in China – thanks to a £3 million investment in robotic equipment. Managing Director Paul Farmer, in a recent article in The Sentinel, said:
We haven't lost permanent staff because we have been busy in other parts of the business... We have lost some agency workers, but we have kept the permanent workforce stable. We are growing and in fact we are starting to recruit again... At the moment we're looking for engineers and machine operators.

Wage levels in China are going up and I believe the minimum-order quantities there are huge. This [robotic] technology and our flexibility means we can really exploit that.
Mr Farmer believes automation is becoming more important as traditional skills become harder to find.
There isn't any young blood coming through and we are all having to fight each other for the skills out there.
Wade Ceramics is representative of a very real situation: a shifting, reduced or diminishing workforce due to a variety of causes.  The effect is that Wade is having difficulty finding skilled labor to man its factories.  The same situation is appearing in certain areas around the world, Japan in particular. And robotics is playing a role in remedying the situation.  It seems to me that robotics and automation are inevitable and it's incumbent on governments to upwardly retrain and educate the workforce accordingly.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Autism, Robotics and Apple's iPad

Regular use of iPad on left -- unintended use for autistic kids on right
Here's an unintended consequence of the iPad that is having wonderful results with disabled kids, particularly those with spectrum disorders and communication problems.

There was a poignant story in the SF Chronicle that appears to be the most informative thus far on the subject.
Even the WSJ had an online story that included a quote from Steve Jobs on the subject:
"We take no credit for this, and that's not our intention," Mr. Jobs said, adding that the emails he gets from parents resonate with him. "Our intention is to say something is going on here," and researchers should "take a look at this."
I think the groundswell of uses and apps is touching and important.  Many of those apps are referenced in the SF Chronicle article. Perhaps it will speed up the robotic projects for the low end (hard cases) of the spectrum - projects which are wanting for funding to execute meaningful testing.

Here's a quote from a Los Angeles psychologist that works daily with autistic kids within the school system:
Lots of my kids are using iPads -- especially my kids with limited expressive language or who struggle with retrieval challenges. Because the iPad is not static -- it can be accessed from every angle -- it facilitates greater usage.
The ease of use and low cost of the iPad make it suitable for all these apps.  Before the iPad, parents and school systems had to beg MediCare and other providers for $8,000 or so for a product and software that was similar but with less flexibility, speed, intuitive use and range of software apps as that provided by the iPad.

Some very poignant and informative videos are available on youTube:
A few good resources describing these new iPad apps can be found here:
Have these iPad apps provided the lift therapists and educators need to help them help their disabled kids or is there still a need for robots? A very strong "YES" say the psychologists, educators and therapists that I've discussed this with.  The number of cases is so large and the range of disabilities so extensive that many different treatment methodologies are needed.  Robots have the patience and discipline that difficult cases require.  One notable robotic project that works in this arena is Kaspar.

Kaspar is a small likable robot developed at the University of Hertfordshire where Drs. Kerstin Dautenhahn and Ben Olsen have demonstrated this relatively inexpensive and very portable robot designed specifically to interact with low-spectrum level autistic children.

Dautenhahn and Olsen have had some successes with their robot and they showed me videos of children interacting with the robot and then sharing their excitement with their teacher or parent - a social response not typical of children with this disorder. They had many similar successful anecdotal stories and recently lent one of their Kaspar robots to another University for a more extensive study of 29 autistic children.  The results will be available soon and their hope is that the results will confirm what they have observed: that there is long-lasting social improvement by utilizing the robot as part of the overall therapy with the child.

Dautenhahn and Olsen, when I visited last month, were frustrated that they were unable to raise enough money to run a larger study of their own to prove the benefits of Kaspar's type of robotic interaction.  I was moved by their plight and have suggested the story to some of my reporter friends hoping that a favorable article would give them some attention and perhaps interest a donor or two to help them achieve their goals.  Got bucks?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Bionic Prosthetics Finally Reaching The Market

Exo-assisted soldier lifts and loads heavy munitions
Exoskeletons to meet the needs of the military have narrowed to two major vendors: Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Ratheon's new XOS2 robotic suit is lighter, faster and stronger than its predecessor and uses 50% less power.  Nevertheless it is extremely bulky and cumbersome.

Legs-only version of HULC
Lockheed Martin's HULC, licensed from Berkeley Bionics, is a completely untethered, hydraulic-powered exoskeleton that enables users to carry loads of up to 200 pounds for extended periods of time and over all terrains.  HULC is presently undergoing testing at the Army's Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Florida.

Cyberdyne's HAL
Meanwhile, Japan's Cyberdyne non-military HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) looks better, weighs less, operates longer on battery power.  It was recently chosen for an ABT-funded EU project in Denmark for a rehabilitation center at Odense University Hospital for clinical trials regarding worker augmentation, a use of interest to many.

Just last February, at an FDA Workshop in Washington, DC, I was demoralized to learn that wounded soldiers were still being fitted with old-fashioned hook appliances (CBS News) instead of the ones that I had been reading about in the science and tech journals.  

Dean Kamen shows off "Luke"
prosthetic under development at DEKA Labs
Shortly thereafter, Dean Kamen plugged DEKA's not-yet-ready arm and hand prosthetic (named "Luke") on The Colbert Report.  I asked an acquaintance from the VA about the situation and he commented that the DARPA/DEKA product was too heavy and not-yet ready for prime time.

When I asked him about TouchBionics, a British firm that had already done all the trials and had received the appropriate EU approvals for their bionic limbs, hands and fingers, he said that they had good products and that the VA would pay for them if they were asked to do so by the patient and his or her doctors.  Was that happening, I asked?  Were wounded Americans getting British products? No, was his answer... because nobody told them they could.

Today, one of the trickle-down products from all this government-sponsored activity has arrived and it is impressive: eLEGS from Berkeley Bionics, Lockheed Martin's partner with the military's HULC product. eLEGS provides a complete replacement of a natural human gait using the exoskeleton developed for the military. And the exoskeleton suit has been scaled down to reasonable proportions.

Check out this eLEGs video:

eLEGS was unveiled at a press conference yesterday in San Francisco by Berkeley Bionics’ CEO, Eythor Bender, who explained that the company’s mission is to provide people with unprecedented mobility options.
Many of the 6 million Americans who live with some form of paralysis today were highly active and at the top of their game when they sustained their injury. As they research their options for increased mobility, they discover that wheelchairs are pretty much it. This has been the only alternative – their only hope – for nearly 500 years,” he said. “We want to enhance their independence and freedom of movement,” he added, “and with eLEGS, they can stand up and walk for the first time since their injury.

eLEGS is not yet available to the general public. Clinical trials will commence early next year at select rehabilitation clinics in the United States. A limited release of eLEGS is scheduled during the second half of 2011 at several of the most respected rehabilitation facilities around the country. At that time, eligible patients will have the opportunity to enroll in a medically-supervised eLEGS gait training program, working with their physical therapist. Therapists will undergo training in order to become eLEGS-certified prior to assisting patients.
Many technological breakthroughs are creating a roadmap that is sure to offer disabled people new prosthetic devices to help them help themselves to a more normal existence in the very near future. Hands, arms, feet, legs, ankles, fingers... many are reaching the FDA in the form of clinical trials such as those described above for eLEGS. And there are advances that include wiring existing nerve endings in such a way as to give the wearer true sensation of feeling and touch.

The following projects are worthwhile and offer near-term possibilities for the disabled:
  • SmartHand, an EU-funded bio-adaptive hand prothesis
  • Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL), a DARPA funded project at Johns Hopkins University, is designed to respond to user's thoughts
  • PowerFoot One from iWalk, funded by MIT, the VA and the US Army's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center
  • REX Bionics' exoskeleton is a product similar to eLEGS in that it helps wheelchair users attain vertical mobility
  • Finally, an exoskeleton power assist suit (PAS)  from the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology is oriented to elder Japanese to help them lift and squat while farming their gardens and vegetable plots
All of the projects mentioned are focused on healthcare.  There are many other robotic hand, arm and gripper projects of equal merit which aren't oriented to the healthcare marketplace but will be reviewed in a future article.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

EmTech@MIT 2010: More than just 35 young innovators giving their "elevator pitch"

Afternoon sail on the Charles River; downtown Boston background.
Boston, the Charles River, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provided a beautiful setting for the iPad-toting crowd of VCs, inventors, technology gurus, students, business execs, and curious individuals and investors searching for inroads to our technological future. This year’s Emerging Technologies Conference, which took place September 21-23 on the MIT Campus in Cambridge, focused on important innovations (identified by MIT's Technology Review magazine) in the key sectors of communications, energy, biotech, IT and materials.

Len Polizzoto
There was discussion about the innovation process including defining the difference between a business plan and model (eg: the iPod started as a music business model; not just technology) and a presentation by Len Polizzoto of Draper Labs that included his 10 guiding principles of innovation: (1) A patent does not an innovation make; (2) 90% of new products fail each year; (3) Innovation does not have to be based on new technology; (4) It takes a diverse team; (5) It requires the generation of real value; (6) Value is determined by the end user; (7) The competition is always better than you think; (8) Organizations become less innovative as they grow; (9) VCs don't take risks; and (10) Innovation takes discipline, commitment and dedication.

EmTech@MIT 2010: 35 Innovators Under 35
An awards ceremony honored the 35 outstanding men and women under the age of 35 chosen for 2010 by Technology Review who exemplify the spirit of innovation in business and technology. This year’s winners included Philip Low, Founder and CEO of NeuroVigil, for advances in patient self monitoring of neurological disorders, Wesley Chan, Investment Partner for Google Ventures for developing the Google Toolbar, Google Analytics and Google Voice, and David Kobia from Ushahidi, who received the Humanitarian of the Year Award for his work creating web programs for communities around the world faced with natural disasters or social upheaval.

Each of the 35 gave their "elevator pitch" about their product or service and, more importantly, were available for in-depth conversations during the receptions and networking sessions. Nevertheless, their presence was somewhat anti-climatic because the magazine had already come out fully detailing each innovator and innovation.

Communications and Information Technology:
Although the actual number of cellphone subscriptions worldwide is an estimate ranging upward from 3.3 billion (Informa), the bottom line is the same: it's a mammoth marketplace, larger than the combined worldwide total of PCs, autos and TVs!

Fewer and fewer people have land-lines. Cellphones are more convenient and are providing the necessities plus fun and games and, in some cases, personal identity, eg: in rural or storm damaged places where there are no home addressing systems (or no homes).  

Taking advantage of the movement from simple to smart phones and pads was at the core of many of the Tech 35 Innovations. Some of the more altruistic pursuits include using cell and smart phones to place grocery orders for small stores in India, or to report incidents, requests for help and provide tracking in places faced with natural disasters or social unrest, or providing low-cost self-contained solar-powered satellite communicating VoIP base stations (Vanu) for extreme rural areas.

Matt Grob, Qualcom's head of Corporate R&D and other R&D presenters from Bell Labs and Alcatel/Lucent showed some of the anticipated capabilities including augmented reality projects like road sign translation (imagine how that would help you navigate in Japan, China and Egypt where few signs use English characters), product identification, and gaming, and also short-distance communication, so that appliances can communicate with base stations and become part of a smart grid or network.

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse
Progress in providing faster networks is complex and includes the necessity by the provider companies to recoup their investment (a 3-year process at the least) before they expend the billions it takes for next generation speeds.

Sprint's 4G network release in the Boston area was displayed in many forms at the conference (outside, multiple booths, etc.) - including in a talk from Sprint CEO Dan Hesse where he said that, although Sprint's 4G data plans offered unlimited service, it is reserving the right to rescind that for very heavy users.

With faster networks, many healthcare apps become more realizable as therapeutic need mixes with technology to quickly move color medical images and files around the community, campus and world.  Educators look forward to being able to similarly push content and interactive tutoring in ever faster ways to improve the online learning experience. And gamers and consumers, with their streaming and shopping needs, drive system use and create demand for ever more speedy networks.

Energy and Batteries:
Processing power versus battery life and cost; net-based processing versus local; games and high-bandwidth streaming entertainment versus a limited or differently-priced plan; the costs of scaling up to demand - these were some of the complexities discussed in the IT and communications sphere.

A very similar discussion was hashed about by senior technology scientists and planning advisors from Shell, Exxon and MIT regarding changing how we get and use power. In the energy/power sphere, intermittent power sources such as wind and solar add to the complex decision making process by their desirability versus their inability to store power thus requiring the grid to be smart enough to reduce other sources flexibly... a not-in-the-immediate-future situation.

Energy complexity, with no real solution (or even a national strategy and policy) in sight, is causing uncertainty, speculation and even fear, with a result that hesitation and indecision is slowing down incremental progress.  By this inaction we end up waiting for a miracle solution to come from the labs. This will surely happen, but the questions are when and whether we can we afford to wait.

Consumers choose Kindles over iPads because of battery life. Payment plans, another element of the business model, also plays a role. Amazon eliminates the need to choose a data plan and is a consumer favorite as a result.  Eliminating irrelevant or bothersome choices (eg: which data plan) is going to be important in forthcoming products and their business models.

Much of the energy discussion was removed from technology - except for a nifty display of MIT's urban car project and the EmTech 35 innovations involved in new battery materials and methodology - and bordering on the political - very confusing from the point of view of expectations about the conference.

Robotics, Biomedical and Materials:
Polymer-based SDM Hand
Aaron Dollar, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Yale, has developed a plastic hand able to grasp a wide variety of objects without damaging them, which replicates the flexibility and gentleness of a human hand. As a result he is exploring whether it can be used as a prosthetic.

New battery technology and materials was a hot topic - in fact, batteries were at the core of many topics -  and included Hany Eitouni and his solid polymers SEEO company, acoustic printing of solar cells from SunPrint/Alion, cost-reducing methods for OLED displays, the previously mentioned neural monitoring device for sleep apnea, and a novel armband interface from Microsoft Research to detect gestures.

Conspicuously missing from the conference were representatives from major hubs of emerging technologies, eg: Apple, Amazon and Google.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Optimism: A conversation with Heartland Robotics' Rodney Brooks

He is a robotics entrepreneur and Founder, Chairman and CTO of Heartland Robotics, a stealthy start-up of robotic solutions for small and medium-sized factories. He is also a Founder, Board Member and former CTO (1991 - 2008) of iRobot Corp. He was the former Director (1997 - 2007) of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and then the MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).  A leader in the industry and a man I've long wanted to meet.

Yesterday morning Rodney Brooks and I had a conversation that covered many of the current issues in robotics. Throughout the conversation, he remained positive and upbeat, maintaining a viewpoint that the next few years will be the tipping point for this emerging industry, particularly here in America. Of course, that's part of his current job as entrepreneur/owner of Heartland Robotics.  As he said, "Entrepreneurs need to be optimistic." Nevertheless, it was a refreshing and informative conversation which I very much appreciated.

On the subject of manufacturing, Brooks cited the breadth of the American marketplace: that there are 300,000 small to medium-sized (less than 500 employees) non-auto-industry factories in America... almost none of which use robots, thus a very large marketplace.  He also said that the US is still the biggest manufacturing country in the world even though the trend is to move factories to where labor is plentiful and cheap (a moving offshore target). Also, that the US has the highest productivity rates -- mostly without robotic assistance.  Thus, to stay competitive and beat the trend to offshore sites those productivity rates will need to increase.  How better to do that than with robots?

We talked about the European SME Robotics project - an 8-year public-private effort to provide robotic solutions to keep EU manufacturing from going offshore. Certainly the project yielded needed constructs for safety, ease of use and trainability but no tangible disruptive product(s). Naturally Brooks hopes that his new company will be providing that disruptive product in the immediate future.

We talked about the efforts of many parties all over the world in the field of agriculture.  Companies, universities, P-PIP's and consortium's -- all searching to automate farming.  In the US, a good percentage of farmers are beginning to do what they call "precision farming," ie, using satellite, soil samples, production data, GPS, and other digitized data, to precisely know where and when to place seeds, fertilizers and chemicals to maximize crop production.  Wikipedia's definition of the process is:
Predicated on the concept of in-field variability, precision agriculture requires the use of new technologies, such as global positioning, sensorssatellites or aerial images, and information management tools (eg: GIS) to assess and understand in-field variations. Collected information may be used to more precisely evaluate optimum sowing density, estimate fertilizers and other inputs needs, and to more accurately predict crop yields. It seeks to avoid applying inflexible practices to a crop, regardless of local soil/climate conditions, and may help to better assess local situations of disease and low yields.
John Deere and Caterpillar already enable precision farming and also driverless operation of their tractors.  John Deere offers a whole range of GreenStar™precision products including an auto-steering setup.

Looking into the future, with an eye toward increasing productivity while reducing cost, one can imagine a present-day multi-purpose farm tractor -- big engine, bigger tires, an air conditioned, cushioned operator cabin, lots of gadgets and controls in the cabin, radically changing.  What would it look like if it were driverless?  The operator cabin is expensive and has a lot of devices that would no longer be necessary if the tractor were unmanned. [Why keep it?]  What would an unmanned farm vehicle (UFV) look like? How would it be redesigned? And how much less would it cost?

Slowly but surely John Deere and Caterpillar will be providing farmers with more extensive precision farming products and solutions including driverless tractors. Autonomous vehicles for precision farming by any other name is robotics.

Research and Funding:
Since the beginning of the Obama Administration, there's been nary a word about robotics.  All of a sudden things are beginning to happen. The Whitehouse Office of Science and Technology stated that “robotics is at a tipping point in terms of its usefulness and versatility” and is backing their belief with a fund to spur small business research. The recent Joint Agency SBIR funding announcement for robotics technology development and deployment is just one of many funding sources giving momentum to America's robotics industry.  Venture firms are returning and providing money.  So are DARPA, NASA, ARPA-E and the DoD.  A robotic solution to an existing, definable problem which reduces cost and hazards and increases productivity is very likely to get funded from multiple sources.

Also, Brooks sees movement toward a National Robotics Initiative working its way through Congress and getting into the budget and thereby providing additional funding for robotics research and development.

Looking at all this activity, all in the US, with solid US manufacturers like John Deere and Caterpillar, knowing more about his own companies and other ventures than he was willing to divulge to me, all this provides Brooks with a solid foundation for his optimism for continued robotics growth in America.  Definitely an uplifting conversation.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Congressional Caucuses and Robotics

In late 1961, as President Dwight Eisenhower was preparing to leave office, he carefully warned of a process which I believe parallels our situation today:
Throughout America's adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among people and among nations. To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people. Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt both at home and abroad.

We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.

The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.
Reading these words is a sad experience for me.  Eisenhower really had people and the world of people in mind when he developed and delivered this speech. And he had the perspective of having been a General in war needing and using equipment and a President during a peaceful time, keeping that peace while encouraging and growing the civilian economy.

Bringing this message home to the robotics industry involves a discussion on research in America versus the rest of the world, and the politics of representation to get funding for the industry.  The former has been incorporated into most of my blog entries, particularly the article on financing the strawberry project.

Getting government funding for defense and civilian research and development is what I want to talk about here. There are two Congressional Caucuses today representing the robotics industry. One is educational; the other little more than a platform for lobbying to expedite funding. One addresses industrial and service robotics (which includes UAVs of all types) with a goal of providing a roadmap (including a funding roadmap) to help tackle America's fledgling robotics industry (or watch it be lost to off-shore companies); the other is focused on unmanned aerial devices for the DoD and Homeland Security with little, if any, attention to civilian uses.

Which one do you think will have the biggest impact on America and our long-term strategic goals for continued American life as we know it? The Robotics Caucus. Which one is getting all the attention and money? The UAV Caucus, of course. And that is because of their focus to provide access to Congress for lobbyists from the defense sector.

CBS Sunday Morning did a piece entitled: "Our Future Is Already in the Hands of Robots" and included the following quote:
Enthusiasm for robots on the battlefield, it seems, is only outpaced by the speed with which the military is acquiring them, says the author of "Wired for War," P.W. Singer

"We went into Iraq with a handful of drones; we now have 7,000 in the inventory," Singer said. "We went into Iraq with zero unmanned ground vehicles that are robotic; we now have 12,000.
UGVs and UAVs are a big business right now as are all companies providing products and services to support our war effort. But war spending isn't good for the public, particularly when most of the spending is being spent off-shore. The public may be listening to the Tea Baggers but they know and are experiencing the loss to the economic well-being of our country - and their households - by the trillion dollars we've spent on the Iraq and Afghan wars. We are bankrupting ourselves while the military-industrial complex is thriving. Voters know this. That's why James Carville's maxim "It's the economy, stupid" is as applicable today as it was then. Except that I would add President Eisenhower's warning to the maxim:
"... [and] guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."
Nevertheless there is some non-defense funding. Mikell Taylor at IEEE Spectrum reported that in 2009 there were at least six venture capital investment firms funding robotic start-up companies.

Friday, June 18, 2010

AUTOMATICA 2010: 475,000 sq ft of Industrial Robotics

Every year the robotics industry comes together in one of two big biannual trade shows - one in Germany and the other in Japan. Vendors show their wares in all aspects of robotics and automation: vision systems, sensors, software, servos, integrators, designers, engineering companies, grippers, hands, and all the ancillary businesses, etc. They also show research-in-progress and new technologies not yet in production. In the two outside pictures above one can see KUKA's big fixed arms and their newer, lighter, safer, uncaged arm. The center picture is of a set of integrated welding robots.

Unlike the 2009 iREX show in Japan, this year's German show, AUTOMATICA 2010, was predominantly focused on industrial automation with few non-manufacturing robot and research displayed. Mostly, the show emphasized industrial robotics and their movement toward lighter and safer, with less power consumption and more flexible and efficient software. Their focus on recovery, with little or no discussion about the emerging trend toward non-manufacturing service robots, seemed very narrow to me as did their insistence on proprietary control software.

The show covered over 475,000 sq ft of exhibition space. More than 30,000 engineers, automation executives and roboticists from over 110 countries attended. There were three days of technical sessions presented by ISR (International Symposium on Robotics) and Robotik (German Conference on Robotics) about various technical aspect of robotics.

I wanted to attend AUTOMATICA 2010 to participate in a press conference by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) and to listen to a panel of industry executives discussing the future of robotics. (That's me on the right at the IFR press conference.) In actuality, one could say that the panel was really about the future of industrial automation and the recovery from the devastating crash of the economy and the auto and robotics industries in 2009. It did not reflect all the other aspects of the robotics industry: space, defense, healthcare, mobility, non-manufacturing and service robotics.

The IFR presented a series of charts detailing the immensity of the crash but focused on the positive side: orders are returning and the auto industry is recovering and restructuring with the consequence that the robotics industry will soon feel the benefits of that recovery. As the auto industry becomes more flexible,  uses new materials, and makes other changes to lower costs and increase quality, their assembly lines and robots must also be more flexible and capable, hence upgrades and additional robots.

The final few charts - shown on the web as interactive world maps - were from a study commissioned by the IFR to reflect robot density, ie, the penetration of robotic automation in key manufacturing industries and countries. By comparing the number of robots per 10,000 employees involved in auto industry-related manufacturing to density outside of the auto industry, and then country by country, it could be clearly seen that robot automation had a sizable way to go to fully penetrate the auto industry, particularly in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Thus the focus by the CEOs on capturing those emerging markets.

The panel discussing the "future of robotics," was composed of the industry CEOs shown to the right.  They discussed their near-term goals which appeared to be to recover and reestablish themselves firmly in the automotive industry and to increase their penetration rates worldwide. A somewhat short-sighted viewpoint in my opinion in that they didn't even mention service and non-manufacturing robots.

I interviewed KUKA's CEO, Manfred Gundel, and asked him about their entering the non-manufacturing service robotics business to which he responded that the company was focused on recovering from the disaster of 2009 and increasing their percentage of robotic involvement in the automotive and supporting industries, particularly in emerging countries.  He didn't mention or respond to my questions about applications in healthcare (according to their annual report, KUKA has inroads into x-raying and also radiotherapy) or entertainment (the 4-D simulator at Disney World is a KUKA product).  Further, their movement toward "sensitive" robots (robots that interacted with humans) would be a slow process stretching many years into the future. This is in direct contrast to KUKA's annual report which says that they are working with DLR to develop an entirely new line of robots: lightweight with cognitive capabilities - and two such robots are already working in an auto plant doing rear-axle assembly.  I asked about controllers and other robot training devices and he pointed me to their very complicated portable controller - a far cry from the simplicity of an iPad.

Company Observations:
Nevertheless there were many incremental enhancements at the show. Two-armed robots that perform complex tasks independently or cooperatively - from different manufacturers - most visibly Yaskawa's Motoman - were displayed and it was a big discussion point that Daimler had begun to replace some older single-arm systems with two-armed ones.
Many versions of the delta (parallel) robot were shown. Their high speed and ease of use made for good show displays and were also beginning to penetrate the food processing market; not just the packaging and case handling side of the business.  A few manufacturers were showing versions of their flex-pickers as being able to be washed down and, in the case of Adept, US Dept. of Agriculture approved for meat and poultry processing. Right after AUTOMATICA 2010, Adept announced their acquisition of MobileRobots and their plans to integrate mobility into their line of robotic products. 
At the session where the six finalists for the invention and entrepreneurship award discussed their entries, one could see the increment evolution of technological enhancements pushing forward the efficiencies of robotics, particularly the winning entry by Alexander Verl who developed inline measurement robots which enabled car companies to replace their fixed arrays of sensors and cameras with flexible and fewer robotic ones.  He sold his company and invention to KUKA but many other manufacturers have licensed versions of what has turned out to be a very important enhancement to the inspection/QC process.
ALSTOM Inspection Robots for the process and power industry were built to be highly compact and miniaturized thereby enabling fitting into small spaces and being able to work while the systems remain online (or at least shorten the downtime).
RMT Robotics showed their ADAM™ mobile robot system enabling autonomous delivery and manipulation of products from station to station. The big player in the field of pick and pack, Kiva Systems, was not at the show.  Coincidentally, the mobile robot platform used by RMT Robotics and their ADAM™ system was provided by MobileRobots (which was just acquired by Adept).
And Butterfly Haptics displayed their entry of magnetic levitation haptic interfaces. Haptics of all types were a big thing at the show, many vendors showing different concepts, including the German Space Agency's MIRO surgical interface.
Research Observations:
The major EU research facilities were displaying various forms of work-in-progress to help industrial manufacturers more easily train, stabilize noise, see better, interpret what they see better and grip more efficiently - all facets of flexible industrial robotics.

Profactor, an Austrian research and technology group, was displaying what they called an intuitively trainable 3D object recognition system. They were also displaying iRob, a 3D picker that recognizes different sizes and shapes thus providing a major benefit in that there is no need to presort and arrange the parts fed to the system.

VDMA Robotic + Automation and Fraunhofer IPA, under the thesis that automation is the prerequisite for "green products," and that automation technology is considered a consumer of resources in itself thus the need for saving energy. A special exhibition drawing attention to "green" was the cable robot IPAnema. It can play a key role in the assembly of large-scale solar electricity systems, for example, in obtaining 'clean' electricity from desert regions like at the new 100MW facility being developed in Saudi Arabia. The interesting thing about the IPAnema system was the robotically-controlled use of lines/cables to lift and move very large solar panels. The exhibit had a working model with lateral as well as vertical and horizontal motion - precision-controlled. Fascinating technology.
I also visited Munich and the show to get insight into what was new, what was being featured, what people were talking about, and where the crowds went. I broke my camera (but there was a shopping center nearby with a camera store), wore out my back and feet, drank a lot of alcohol-free beer (very tasty and lo-cal), and barely made it through all the halls.

I attended press conferences, receptions, awards banquets and technical sessions in addition to spending hours talking with exhibitors. And, in my attempt to be a photographer as well as reporter, I produced a slideshow of my photos and video clips which, I hope, will give you a pictorial view of the color and scope of the show.

Almost all of my conversations were upbeat. Everyone acknowledged that the industrial sector of the robotics industry had come to a standstill with layoffs and idle robots. Many of the stalled systems were down because of inflexible control software - or the difficulty in finding qualified people to program these older machines.  But they were also aware that as the auto industry rejiggers itself to be more flexible and profitable, the robotics industry has to keep pace. And the new products shown at AUTOMATICA 2010 were keeping pace: they were lighter, more human-safe, flexible and green. When I talked with the research people from Fraunhofer IPA, DLR and at the EUROP booths, their focus was on expanding capabilities, enhancing software, making training easier, and enabling safer human-robot interaction.

Nevertheless, last year's Japanese show, iREX 2009, presented a more comprehensive and balanced exhibition of all aspects of robotics - industrial as well as service robotics, and research-in-progress. iREX2009 was definitely more well-rounded and far-sighted. It presented current trends in service robotics and pie-in-the-sky research projects as well as industrial robotics making the show more attractive to a larger crowd (100,000+ vs 30,000+).

On a personal note, I was disturbed to see that although many robot manufacturers have American offices for sales and integration, they are not American-owned; their robots are not manufactured in the U.S. Very few American companies displayed their wares at AUTOMATICA 2010, fewer even than at iREX 2009.  To me, this is a very troubling trend.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

10 Drivers Propelling Growth in Service Robotics

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, forecast a jobless recovery for 2010 barring any unforeseen circumstances. He defined the jobless recovery as firms replacing inventories and expanding production but with little, if any overtime, no drop in unemployment, and the Fed keeping interest rates low.

As Reich's scenario seems to be playing out, regardless of the European economic bailout plan for Greece (and perhaps other EU countries as well), robotics, particularly in the service sector, are defying those predictions. Companies are hiring, their stocks are doing better than the averages, and their orders and backlogs are increasing.

Ex-NASA Astronaut Dan Barry, lecturing at a Singularity conference, categorized robots into two types: special and general purpose. He suggested that industry will have a steady need for the former but the real breakthrough and potentially disruptive technologies will be in the area of autonomous general-purpose robots.

The International Federation of Robotics also classifies robots into two types: Industrial Robots and Service Robotics. They define service robotics as:
Robots which operate semi or fully autonomously to perform services useful to the well-being of humans and equipment, excluding manufacturing operations.
Barry described the joint Robonaut project between General Motors and NASA. Robonaut2 – R2 for short – is the next generation dexterous robot which will launch later this year to become a permanent resident of the International Space Station. The 300-pound R2 consists of a head and a torso with two arms and two hands and can work alongside humans, whether they are astronauts in space or workers at GM manufacturing plants on Earth.
"The work done by GM and NASA engineers also will help us validate manufacturing technologies that will improve the health and safety of our GM team members at our manufacturing plants throughout the world. Partnerships between organizations such as GM and NASA help ensure space exploration, road travel and manufacturing can become even safer in the future" said Alan Taub, VP of Global Research for GM.
In the next 3-5 years Barry expects breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (which puts the brains and autonomy into the robot) to better enable human-robot interfaces (haptics, gesture and speech recognition) and human-robot interactions (training, instruction, direction, intention, etc.). Further, with reduced costs for ever-improving and more comprehensive sensors, feedback and vision systems, there will be better navigation, object avoidance and object recognition systems. AI remains as the critical cog in autonomous general purpose robots.

One can easily see why the definition of service robots is changing and expanding. The service robotics sector is already dynamic, active in a multitude of industries, emerging in many more, likely to have a serious worldwide economic impact, and encompasses all manner of processing, service, and assistance with robots.

New technology is often an offshoot of scientific whim but it is also directed toward solving real problems. Technological change that is truly disruptive stimulates economic change - think of all the changes involved with the digital revolution. There are also macro events that stimulate economic change as can be seen from the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the emergence of capitalism in Russia, India and China. Once possibility is perceived and understood, and there is a sufficient marketplace to sustain a business, people begin to find ways to make it happen and back those ways with their money. This process of scientific development solving real problems, VC willingness to fund the solutions and public understanding sufficient to create a demand that can be profitably satisfied is often described as an "economic driver." Here are some of the drivers causing the services sector of the robotics industry to blossom:
  1. For defense, robotics have been found to be useful for amplifying human effectiveness. Ground robots have already saved hundreds of lives and prevented thousands of casualties. UAVs and bomb disposal robots have become a vital and growing part of military arsenals worldwide. Certainly the amount of governmental funding in this area has stimulated the overall service robotics sector and will do so for many years to come.
    • DARPA, NASA and NSF have a proven track record of spending for military/defense robots and unmanned devices for many years now with much media attention directed to their successes.
    • Currently, DARPA, NASA and NSF are focusing their research investments toward smart cameras and vision systems and very flexible robotic hands. The solutions to these two areas of focus will broadly expand robotic capabilities everywhere. Both have timetables with mid-2014 deadlines for solutions. Production in the security/defense sector will occur first and shortly thereafter will trickle down for civilian use.
  2. In healthcare, robotics are emerging on many fronts:
    • Patient demand for minimally- (or non-) invasive surgeries is growing.
    • Doctors are requesting better and more capable robotic devices to meet that need.
    • In Germany there are 457 robotic surgical devices actively being utilized with only 10% presently available commercially. These new inventions will be hitting the market soon.
    • As the healthcare industry goes digital, more use of robotic products will be enabled. Pharmacy and pill dispensing robots; replacing tedious, inappropriate and repetitive nursing functions with robots; providing courier robots and tugs; improved lab robots, etc.
    • Telepresence robots are getting exposure and in trials for remote consulting and also applications in eldercare.
    • Many likely-to-happen healthcare robotic innovations were suggested at a recent Stanford medical robotics conference - the most immediate of which was the changing role of surgeons as they become augmented with robotics and other medical devices:
      • More devices that perform their functions autonomously.
      • Automated scrub and circulating nurses, and tele-consulting in the operating room.
      • Automation in tissue suturing, bonding and anesthesiology.
  3. There is consumer demand from gamers to buy gloves, vests and vision products to supplement their gaming experience. All sorts of AI and haptic-enhanced robotic products are involved - from sex robots and smart sex toys, to game-playing quadcopters, to iPhone-controlled robots.
  4. Consumer knowledge of iPhone, iTouch, iPad and other smart products and appliances including embedded robotic products like adaptive cruise control, combined with some disposable income, is showing up in demand for these and new products from non-traditional robot vendors, eg:
    • Parrot, a manufacturer of audio/stereo components for cars, is bringing to market the hottest item at CES earlier this year: an iPhone-controlled, indoor-flying, game-playing quadcopter.
    • Many new vacuum robots that have better navigation and vacuum more thoroughly are beginning to give iRobot some competition.
    • GM, Volvo and other car manufacturers are expanding their adaptive cruise control systems to cover lane changes, sleep awareness, and total stop for human objects on a collision course. A must-read update on progress and plans on the path toward cars that drive themselves in this decade appeared yesterday in The Washington Post.
  5. Recent news of the BP oil spill and the use of underwater robots, add to a learning curve about robotic and unmanned air, sea and land vehicle capabilities. With this awareness comes more interest in robotic products that are truly useful and productive versus fun and unusual but showing no clear commercial justification.
  6. UAVs returning from Iraq are being converted to science and other uses and are showing UAVs in other roles than drones surveilling and bombing. Now they're being used for scientific purposes, enhancing agricultural tasks and providing border and civilian authorities with serious surveillance capabilities.  The only hangups are collision avoidance systems and FAA-type approvals.
  7. Since I began tracking news and web coverage of AI and robotic research two years ago, the number of hits mentioned in Google news has increased 10-fold.
  8. Embedded into many automation systems are robotic arms from KUKA, Fanuc, ABB, Schunk, Peak Robotics and other industrial and lab robot providers. These companies have to diversify to stay afloat which is why they are bringing their wide range of newer, safer, easily trainable products and capabilities to untapped markets such as food processing, agriculture, healthcare and small and medium-sized manufacturers.
  9. Continuing worldwide business competition spurs reductions in production costs and increased productivity in almost every industry. Many of the savings will come from using robotics.
    • Although Europe is leading in small and medium enterprise manufacturing automation, the American auto industry is poised to use robotics in hundreds of new and innovative ways.
    • Also, the major robotics manufacturers are now producing more flexible, safe and easily trainable robotic products with customizations for non-auto industry applications and small and medium-sized manufacturers.
  10. There are many recent examples of venture capitalists entering the marketplace. In the last few months they have invested in agricultural and surveillance robots and drones.
A possible #11, and a macro driver for Japan, is the reduction of workforce and increase in seniors due to low birth and immigration rates. Even though it is a driver in Japan, it's different for many other countries. It's dynamic too. Japan is the worst case because they have little or no migrant labor but many EU countries have very low retirement ages - which are changing upward instead of acting as a driver. And the US is a mixed bag. It just seems too complex to enter as a near-term driver.

In each of these cases, roboticists are working with marketing and financial people to make sure that there is a product that can be built to meet a real business need at a cost that is profitable to the robotic company and beneficial to the buying company.

It is because of all of these factors, and their exponential effect on one another, that I see significant forward progress in the service robotics sector - progress that will translate into profits and disruptive robotic products within this decade.