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.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Willow Garage's Noble Open Source Effort - Plus Telepresence Robots

Is Jorge Cham's cartoon true?  Do typical robotics grad students really spend 70% of their time re-inventing the wheel? If so, wouldn't you think that Willow Garage's open source effort to provide a robotics operating system (ROS) would be welcomed worldwide?  And the resulting tools for sharing and testing cause an accelerating boom in robotics development?  I certainly hope so but the evidence seems contrary.

Willow Garage is definitely doing their part.  They are developing and offering capable robotic operating systems and simulation architecture that is open and available to all.  In fact, they have just awarded 11 Willow Garage robots (PR2s) with the accompanying ROS operating system to research labs around the world.

  1. University of Freiburg (Germany)
  2. Bosch (worldwide manufacturer of electronics and sensors)
  3. Georgia Tech (USA)
  4. Katholieke University Leuven (Belgium)
  5. MIT (USA)
  6. Stanford (USA)
  7. Technical University of Munich (Germany)
  8. UC Berkeley (USA)
  9. University of Pennsylvania (USA)
  10. USC (USA)
  11. University of Tokyo JSK Lab (Japan)
Scott Hassan, founder of Willow Garage (and of Google fame), is backing his vision to push the frontiers of robotics, both scientifically and commercially, with money and manpower, toward a world of standards -- to thwart the re-inventing process by providing tools for sharing and building on each other's work.  His crew of talented roboticists is committed to open source robotics software, and can be seen at various trade shows and conferences around the world promoting that vision... attempting to make ROS the new Linix of robotics.  Yet there were only 73 applicants for the 11 free robots.  Why not 730?  Or more?
Who knows what might happen in a few years if this catches on and ROS emerges as a "de facto" open source robotics system like Linux emerged for computers? says Erico Guizzo, Associate Editor of IEEE's Spectrum.
Certainly there is a need to standardize.  The Robotics Industries Association just reported that first quarter 2010 sales were $208 million.  That revenue represents just 3,069 robots - at $67,775 per robot - not mentioning the other costs for programming, integration, safety, etc. which often approximate three times the cost of the robot.  That brings the total to almost a quarter million dollars! With standardization and modularity, costs could plunge - and then quantities, revenues and application areas would really blossom.  Actually, costs MUST plunge for there to be a revolution in robotics.

Yet every day or so we receive an announcement of another personal robot built from scratch with proprietary software and systems.

The real question appears to be: why isn't Willow Garages' effort transforming the robotics world?  Are there really better transformational operating systems and platforms out there?  What are they?  Where are they?  What makes them better?  Or, are there other more prosaic reasons, and if so, what are they?

Steve Cousins, President and CEO of Willow Garage, responded to these questions, by email from ICRA, the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, in Alaska:
Many robotics suppliers, from Segway (which makes a widely-used robot base) to Barrett Technologies (which makes the WAM arm) have announced support for ROS on their platforms.

Many robotics software players have decided to open source code and make it compatible with ROS.  Examples include SRI, which sells Karto but recently made the core of it open source and integrated with ROS, and URBI, which has recently open sourced its scripting language and is integrating it with ROS.

ICRA was the debut of the PR2.  It is robust (it's cutting-edge demonstrations ran constantly for the full 3 days of the show) and capable.  It is going to change the way robotics software development is done over the next few years.

I challenge you to find another robotics company that's had this kind of impact in its first three years.  I'm extremely proud of our team and our performance this far, and am looking forward to continuing to have this kind of impact over the next three years and beyond.

An Aside About Telepresence Robots

Willow Garage recently produced 25 telepresence robots.  These have not yet been given away or put to use - but they have a name: Texas; or, as a group, Texai. Some of them are planned for use in human-robot interaction research; others at various sites and companies to study the mobility, networking and social challenges that must be addressed in the design of robot telepresence platforms.

The Kiplinger Report includes telepresence robots as one of eight areas of robotics that will affect your life in the near future.

Certainly telepresence robots are having an effect in healthcare. Giraff Technologies AB and InTouch Health have made particular inroads.  InTouch Health says that they presently have telepresence robots in 300 hospitals and are performing over 10,000 remote presence sessions per quarter.

Other application areas for telepresence robots include their use as couriers, security guards, guides, receptionists, etc.

Venture money is flowing into telepresence robotics.  As an example, InTouch Health just received $10 million in two separate private placement fundings.

Anybots, a competitor in the telepresence marketplace, has just announce their pricing and delivery dates for their first commercial entry: this fall at $15,000. Comments range from curiosity to skepticism.
$15k? They must be kidding. A battery, a couple of motors & wheels on the bottom, netbook innards on top running Skype and a bit of custom code to drive it remotely and you are all set. $1500 might be more like it. Mine wont be that cute however, I guess that's what the other $13,500 pays for.

Willow Garage counters those comments by claiming that the freedom to control the experience of who and what they are looking at, and how they can engage the participants, provides a superior communication experience than the talking heads of iChat, Skype and other similar video arrangements.

Not to be outdone, at the Shanghai World Expo 2010 which started last month in Shanghai, 37 Hai Bao robots developed by Zhejiang University, roam the crowds to interact with visitors and costumed performers.  Multiple Hai Bao telepresence robots lead tours together, perform ceremonies and dances, tell jokes, shake hands, greet people in six languages and even help guests take and display photos.

Willow Garages timely experimentation in this dynamic new area of robotics may be fortuitous for all concerned.