Friday, December 23, 2011

Lively international innovation summit about robotics



In Lyon, France, 14th to 16th March, 2012. Save the date!

By Frank Tobe, Editor/Publisher, The Robot Report (www.TheRobotReport.com)
and Catherine Simon, General Secretary, French Federation of Robotics


Today’s devices are becoming smarter and connected. They sense their environment, process the data collected and act upon their decisions autonomously or semi-autonomously.  The transformation is beyond productivity and enters our daily life in health, safety, transportation, communication, entertainment, chores and more. This trend is a real opportunity for disruptive innovations.


InnoRobo – 14th to 16th of March 2012, in Lyon, France – is gathering the thinkers and doers to their innovation summit to accelerate the emergence of such innovations.



InnoRobo promises to gather top range exhibitors from Asia, North America and Europe and will demonstrate more than 100 different robots, with 30+ displayed for the first time in Europe.  The whole emerging robotic ecosystem (creators, technologies, component suppliers, distributors, high end research labs and educational institutions) will be participating in an energetic, open-minded atmosphere, sharing and exchanging with entrepreneurs, investors, reporters and researchers.  

Of course there will be some uniquely French things that you won’t experience elsewhere:


In addition to the exhibition hall, there will be conference sessions with five major themes:


Synergies and convergence between Industrial and Service robotics:

Industrial robotics is known for its applications in welding, soldering, handling, painting and assembling, for the automotive, electronics, metal, plastic and chemical industries. But industrial robotics is evolving towards new industries as well as smaller firms. It needs to reinvent itself and produce more flexible, mobile, easily trainable robots to work hand in hand with human workers. The human robot interactions (HRI) in factories and Co-botics are hot topics demonstrating the synergies and convergence that are likely to happen between industrial and service robotics technologies and solutions.

Health and Medical robotics:

The growth of medical robots and surgeon/doctor augmentation devices since the mid-80s has been overwhelming, both as a field of innovation and research but also as a market for new products and services. Medical robotics is considered one of the success-stories of service robotics. It is a prominent segment of growth driven by demographic shifts, rising prosperity in developing countries and advances in medical technology.

Urban robots for citizens:

One vision for the future features a generation of robots designed to play various roles in urban society. Some robots will be guides, others will help the elderly, some will make sure megacities are safe and others will collect our rubbish and do various daily chores. Beyond this we envision intelligent robotics to solve our major societal challenges: mobility with an overwhelming urbanization, and sustainable development for our planet to survive our demanding energy consumption.

Cloud robotics:

Every file, document, database and digital information is now going through the “Cloud”. What does it mean for our future, with machine to machine communication, connectivity for each and every of our daily life object? The imaginary world of Matrix is not so far away: your personal robot can learn with a simple download from the Cloud how to fly a helicopter or cook the perfect dinner.

Human-Robot interactions:

User-centered design is a must for robots to truly become a mass market. Although technologies progress rapidly, and despite the impressive demonstrations of humanoid robots from Japan or elsewhere, we are not there yet.  Hence the shape of robots has to be driven both by its functions and by our human expectations.  A robotic dog which doesn’t sense my approach remains a gadget, a humanoid robot which cannot engage in a natural conversation will be a disappointment.  What is the correct level of interactions with a robot? What is the ideal form factor associated to the functions it performs? What kind of robots are we ready to accept and cooperate with in our daily life? These major questions will be dealt with by researchers, ergonomists, anthropologists and roboticists at InnoRobo.

In short, InnoRobo is all about the emerging business of service robotics, where growth is projected to be a major economic driver of the 21st century’s economy. Robotics will change our life, so it might be worth getting to know when and how. InnoRobo is a way to participate in that process.

For further information: www.innorobo.com 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Robotics is a Highly Fragmented Industry With Few Common Standards or Platforms

by Frank Tobe, Publisher, The Robot Report
with Manoj Sahi, roboticist and educator, India

 
Imagine being present at the birth of a new industry. It is an industry based on groundbreaking new technologies, wherein a handful of well-established corporations sell highly specialized devices for business use, and a fast-growing number of start-up companies produce innovative toys, gadgets for hobbyists and other interesting niche products. But it is also a highly fragmented industry with few common standards or platforms. Projects are complex, progress is slow, and practical applications are relatively rare. In fact, for all the excitement and promise, no one can say with any certainty when -- or even if -- this industry will achieve critical mass. If it does, though, it may well change the world.
Bill Gates, Scientific American Reports
2008 Special Edition on Robotics
Bill Gates clearly defined what I see to be prevalent in robotics today -- that there really are two different worlds operating, often together, more often not: 
  • Industrial robotics -- wherein a handful of well-established corporations sell highly specialized devices for business use. KUKA, FANUC, ABB  and Yaskawa Motoman are amongst the mostly European and Japanese vendors providing handling, welding, cleanroom and assembling robots to the automobile, electronics and a few other industries. [According to the International Federation of Robotics in their annual World Industrial Robotics 2011 report, 118,337 robot units were sold in 2010 bringing the worldwide count of industrial robots in place and working to 1,035,000.]

  • Service robotics -- faster-growing, with start-up companies and research labs producing innovative toys, gadgets for hobbyists and niche products for healthcare, dairy and agriculture, home and yard, space, defense, security and surveillance, and scientific research. [According to the International Federation of Robotics in their annual World Service Robotics 2011 report, 2,203,241 total service-sector robots were sold in 2010 composed of 13,741 field or high-end service robot units (of which 45% were for defense applications), about 1.4 million vacuum and floor cleaners, 36,500 lawn-mowing robots and 753,000 entertainment robots.]
As Mr. Gates said, robotics is a highly fragmented industry with few common standards or platforms even though there are well-financed pushes toward standard connectors, open-source software, modularity and shared libraries. Recently there's been a clammer for (and against) a universal open-source robotic operating system. The proponents main argument is that such a system is beneficial particularly for rapid prototyping in the development of new systems while almost all of the industrial robot manufacturers argue that their robots are performing mission critical tasks which require secure and fail-safe operating systems - which they have developed and optimized over the past 50 years.

The diversity of the arguments are, to some extent, merited based on the unique needs of the various end users:
  • Industrial, commercial, healthcare and defense users do need security, reliability and efficiency and robot vendors have a vested interest in protecting their value-added software and hardware solutions.
  • Academics and emerging businesses need openness and sharing so that re-invention isn't so prevalent as it has been in the past, and a full range of features and simulation capabilities are available so that far-ranging teams can collaborate on research projects using the same software. 

Industrial robot control systems are complex in part because of the need to integrate the robot into the end user's manufacturing system, partly because of the many algorithms which need to be processed to make the robot and all of its moving parts work, and because, up until recently, it was necessary to distribute the computing workload of the various activities of the robot, but also because control systems haven't kept up with the availability of faster and more capable CPUs, connectors and communication methods. All of these are reasons leading to robot manufacturers becoming more OEM-like as most of them aren't too capable in developing engineering solutions for new applications (thus their dependence on system integrators).

Service robotics, on the other hand, are more mobile and self-contained, carrying with them (or communicating via wifi) their control system functions. They tend to be either mobile or portable and either loosely connected to the end-user's internal system or operate either autonomously or by modified remote control. Consequently, software like ROS brings lots of new capabilities which the original robot manufacturers are not able to do. Service robotic providers and research labs and facilities see the value and enjoy the benefits of shared open source development - they see it as good and useful for the overall robotics community -- yet most of the start-up companies lock down their finished products so that end users are assured that their products are safe, secure and reliable and the resulting software is reduced to enable the product to fully function but not be overloaded with unused functionality.

Adding to this fragmentation and complexity are a few macro-level near-term trends:
  • Commoditization of hardware, hardware modules, and software.
    • Markus Waibel, senior researcher at Zurich's ETH IDSC and participant in the EU's RoboEarth library-sharing project, feels that there is a good chance that we will see a split into companies specializing in robotics software vs. robotics hardware in the near future. This is evidenced by the current trend toward modularization and commoditization of robotic hardware. This happened in the early PC industry and there are obvious benefits. "Actually, I would go a step further and argue that this split has already happened in robotics research, with most research platforms at least supporting [Willow Garage's] ROS," said Waibel. 
    • Tom Wagner, CTO of iRobot, says: "Open interfaces; not open source. That way 3rd party equipment and payloads can work harmoniously with iRobot and other robot manufacturer's products while still providing a safe, secure and reliable product to the end user." 
    • Many needed solutions have already been solved yet are re-invented regularly within academia, partly because of cost, partly to aid in the learning process and sometimes out of just plain whimsy. 
    • Forums for bringing together scientists, engineers, users and executives, such as the recent RoboBusiness 2011 event in Boston, attempt to thwart reinvention by being small and personal so that people have the time to explain their problems and explore various solutions. At that Boston forum, by having the time to meet and explore, one Boston agricultural startup was able to solve a vexing navigation problem by purchasing a solution module from another startup that had already solved that exact problem.
    • Industrial robot manufacturers are beginning to shift into the service sector. At a recent conference in San Francisco, KUKA, a large industrial robot manufacturer, announced that they were proceeding along a path outlined in an internal roadmap to enter the service robotics business. Although no other industrial vendor has indicated similar intentions, the progression to enlarge their businesses by adapting their robots and robotic solutions into the service sector appears to be inevitable.
      • Key points in KUKA's roadmap are enabling mobility with SLAM navigation, making their robots lighter in weight, sensitive to their surroundings so that they are safe for nearby workers, and providing motion simulator trainability for future applications.
    • Bosch also has a roadmap for developing robotic consumer devices that work within Bosch's existing product family. Cost, safety and convenience are their primary concerns. A laundry app is a perfect matchup of technology and Bosch's product line thus, at IROS, they were all over the Berkeley team that trained a PR2 robot to fold laundry.
  • SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises) are seen as a major near-term market for robot expansion. This market needs easily trainable low-cost co-robots that are flexible and safe enough to handle multiple small-volume tasks alongside humans. This is the bread and butter application for SMEs. Incidentally, this is another example of robot manufacturers becoming commodity robot and module providers - in this case providing a large quantity of low-cost co-robots and letting the SME's provide their own customization and integration.
    • Big consumer product companies such as Toyota, Samsung and others, have announced their intentions to enter the medical robotics and consumer healthcare marketplace in 2013 and 2014. This may have as much positive impact on the service robotics sector as Foxconn is having in the industrial market (see below). 
    • Foxconn entering the robotics manufacturing business with their own manufacturing and assembly factories as clients.
      • They've announced a planned deployment of 1 million robots within 3-4 years.
      • Little is known of the details of the types, quantities or activities of the robots nor of the 500,000 human laborers that will be displaced.
    • The Cloud is being introduced into robotics as it is in other areas of business - a way to offload processing and data to a place better equipped to handle the high number of CPU cycles needed to process vision, recognition, communication and navigation, most often simultaneously.
    It is into this fray -- this two-world ascendant industry of promise, fragmentation and complexity - that the question of whether a universal robotic control system is needed or not has been asked and not clearly answered.

    There appears to be an obvious and logical answer:
    • Robot manufacturers will soon enable open-source systems such as Willow Garage's ROS to connect and front-end their proprietary internal operating system. Yaskawa Motoman has already done this.
    • They will also enable an as-yet undeveloped universal interface so that using specialized devices and modules from various 3rd party vendors can occur.
    • There won't be a commercial version of ROS nor a universal robotic operating system.
    • There will, however, within academia and the emerging service robotics sector, be a greater dependence and use of ROS because, as Markus Waibel says, "There are obvious economies of scale benefits - just have a look at the ROS contributors list and it is very clear that even now no single robotics manufacturer can match this brainpower."

    Thursday, November 17, 2011

    Huge employer in China makes big step toward robots

    Copied and cross-linked with permission from:

    The New Economy, November 17, 2011

    Foxconn, a big contractor for Apple and others, breaks ground for robot facilities. It plans to replace 500,000 workers with 1 million robots.

    Workers are seen inside a Foxconn factory in the township of Longhua in China's southern Guangdong Province in this 2010 photo. After a spate of employee deaths and complaints about working conditions, electronics manufacturer Foxconn has broken ground on new robot facilities. Within five years, it says it plans to replace 500,000 workers with 1 million robots. Photo: (Bobby Yip/Reuters/File) 
    By Frank Tobe, contributor

    When the world’s largest maker and assembler of electronic components and products announced plans in August to replace Chinese workers with robots, some robot executives called it a ploy to keep their workers in line. The company didn’t want to build robots, they said, it wanted to control its workers, who had complained of tough working conditions and had a spate of suicides.

    But earlier this month, officials from Hon Hai Precision Industry and its subsidiary, Foxconn, took the next step, signaling a potential sea change in the electronics industry. They broke ground for new robotics R&D and manufacturing facilities in a new industrial park in Taichung, central Taiwan. Foxconn, which made its name by using cheap mainland Chinese labor to supply the likes of Apple, HP, Sony, Dell and Nokia, says it will replace 500,000 workers with robots in the next three to five years.

    The plan is so sweeping that its implementation would have huge implications for China and the robotics industry worldwide. It signals that Chinese labor may no longer have the low-cost advantage it once enjoyed and that the robotics industry is ripe for change.

    Start with China. Most of Foxconn’s 1.2 million employees work there. So an automation plan that would replace nearly half the company’s workforce suggests that the cost of those workers is rising. In a press release, the company said mass producing assembly-line type robots was part of its plan to cope with labor shortages and rising wages.

    Foxconn has special reasons for speeding up factory automation. During the past 15 months, at least 14 Foxconn workers have died in apparent suicides, most of them in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, where harsh working conditions were said to exist. The company received so much negative publicity and scrutiny from labor groups and clients, Apple in particular, that it began a two-pronged effort to reduce labor costs.

    Foxconn has been relocating factories closer to its source of employees, inland China and central Brazil, and is moving ahead with its robot development. The company expects its new robot R&D and manufacturing facilities to create 2,000 jobs in Taiwan. The new robots which will be deployed in China, will allow Foxconn to move displaced workers up the skill ladder to better paying and more interesting jobs. How many workers are kept on is anybody's guess. But with sufficient growth, Foxconn has an incentive to redeploy most of them, which would avoid having to hire, train, and house additional workers as production needs increase.

    Foxconn’s move also represents a wakeup call to ABB, KUKA, and Fanuc – the world’s largest robot manufacturers currently. Its plan to develop robots on its own implies that the current lines of industrial robots are not flexible and easily trainable enough for the likes of Foxconn.

    Foxconn’s move into the robotics business reflects how things are changing in the industry. The days when industrial robots had a small library of moves but precisely and reliably repeated those moves 24/7 are no longer. New tech is more personalized and manufacturing is following with small quantities of thousands of variants of base products. Robots have to keep up with those changes. At present they have not.

    Foxconn’s plans are hugely ambitious, nevertheless. According to the latest statistics from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), there were 52,290 industrial robots in China of which approximately 10,000 were in Foxconn factories. Thus, the company is aiming to go from 10,000 to 1 million robots in three to five years.

    That would nearly equal the number of industrial robots currently deployed worldwide –1,035,016, according to the IFR.

    Some analysts remain skeptical that Foxconn really intends to build robots. It will concentrate on automation machinery instead, they say. But two sources – both claiming not to be able to provide details because of nondisclosure agreements – say the opposite: Foxconn is planning on entering the robot manufacturing business with a variety of flexible, easily trainable, and low-cost assembly-line robots.

    China is the fastest-growing market for the use of industrial robotics, IFR says. It forecasts that industrial robotics applications in China will increase by 64 percent next year.

    Swedish power and automation technology company ABB Group recently built a robot manufacturing facility in China, supplementing numerous sales and integration offices.

    The stock of Foxconn’s parent company, Hon Hai, has fallen about 22 percent so far this year, but margins are improving as plant relocations are completed. One Barclay’s financial analyst says the next 12 months look much better. Factory relocation costs have still taken a toll on Hon Hai's bottom line profitability, though analysts say the expansion could pay off in the long-run, thanks to the lower wages that Hon Hai will be able to pay in these less affluent regions.

    – Frank Tobe is editor and publisher of The Robot Report, a website that tracks the global business of robotics, and the Everything-Robotic blog

    Friday, November 11, 2011

    Lots of robots coming onboard in 2013, 2014 and 2015


    Pure science is an integral part of robotics and often leads to solutions for strategic needs for an audience of willing buyers. Here are a few examples of that process from companies with products scheduled to hit the marketplace in the next four years.

    Harvest Automation
    • Servicing ornamental horticulture market ($35 billion industry)
    • Focused on nurseries and greenhouses and their continual need to move potted plants
    • Each robot to produce 10,000 hours of production and do the work of one laborer
    • Will be in field beta testing in 2012; full rollout of commercial product in 2013
    • This year's field testing quite successful
    • More than 10 prospective nursery clients signed on to be test sites and contributed to the development process
    • Fully venture funded until 2015 projected profitability
    Foxconn - throwing all the other numbers out of whack
    • Building $223 million R & D and manufacturing facility to produce assembly-line robots
    • Plans to go from 10M present number of robots to 300M by end of 2013 to 1MM by end of 2015
    • Mammoth rollout in Western terms; but not for Asian factories
    • Hiring 2,000 Taiwanese engineers and scientists to make it happen
    • Foxconn has had problems managing all their employees (1.2 MM)
    • Replacing 1 million dull, dirty and dangerous tasks in their own factories with robots will eliminate 500M positions; Foxconn says they are planning to move up those 500M rather than lay them off; also saves necessity to hire 500M more workers
    • Robots will likely be low-level polishers, painters, welders and transporters with intricate assemblies still done by human hands
    Sea Robotics
    • Office of Naval Research sponsored research to develop robotic underwater device to clean ship hulls
    • Science is to mimic the behavior of sea creatures
    • $1 billion in excess fuel and cleaning attributable to biofouling - barnacles and biofilm adhering to ships hulls
    • Hull Bug, Sea Robotics new robot, is a fully autonomous submersible that figures out how to efficiently traverse a complicated three dimensional environment consisting of the contours of a ship
    • Sensors determine clean or not clean thus robot can determine the surfaces it has yet to sweep
    • Other sensors inspect for barnacles and they are removed differently
    • Cool and descriptive video and an in-depth report on the details of the project
    • Currently being tested with deployment in 2015 across the US Navy's fleet
    These three examples are just the tip of an iceberg of near-term robot deployments. Other announcements include hoped-for companies like Heartland Robotics and the commercialization of DARPA science projects such as the ARM Project which is slated to complete in 2014, to niche robot markets like the one to maintain and inspect high voltage transmission lines from the Electric Power Research Institute due to be deployed in 2014.

    Heartland Robotics' project is a big hope for American-based robotics businesses if and when it produces a factory assistant robot - a co-robot - for small and medium-sized enterprises.  Similar to Harvest Automation - Heartland has enlisted manufacturer partners to help them help each other. No field trials yet nor planned dates given.

    DARPA's ARM Project is developing software and hardware that enables a robot to autonomously manipulate, grasp, and perform complicated tasks, with humans providing only high-level supervision. The ARM robot will be able to adapt to unstructured, dynamic environments. Imagine a two-armed security robot unzipping or unsnapping personal luggage and then rifling through searching for illegal objects and then closing it back up again.

    All of this activity is online and heading for a bright robotic future and I haven't even mentioned the healthcare field where robotic assistants of all types are flourishing and in line at the FDA and European CE agencies awaiting approvals... but that's another story next month.

    Monday, October 24, 2011

    Emerging Underwater Businesses: Three Companies to Note

    By Frank Tobe. Publisher, The Robot Report
    Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's Sentry ROV
    We've read about their use in last year's Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil spill and their underwater repair work, traipsing the corridors and collecting rubble at Fukushima nuclear power plants, the exploits of James Cameron and his amazing underwater photos and movie about the Titanic, read the science journals about new autonomous drilling rigs and underwater platforms, and seen the recent finding and salvaging of the black box from the 2009 Air France crash. Just last week the largest ever cache of precious metal found in the sea - 200 tons of silver worth $230 million - was discovered along with the wreck of a British cargo ship sunk during the Second World War by a German U-boat.

    Almost every day I find a press release reporting marine contracts of one type or another. For example Shilling Robotics just received an order for two 3,000m ROV systems for delivery to the South Korean navy. They will be used for submarine rescue and towing/salvage operations.

    There's no doubt that the underwater robot business is emerging.

    Underwater robots are very new and many of them are still in their initial phase of evolution. Most of them are actually inspired by the design engineering of nature. These robots look like sea creatures and have achieved a certain degree of motion but are still not good enough to gel with underwater sea life. Although the application and target problems are limitless, most of them are presently focused on specific areas like oil, gas, and mineral exploration, data collection and monitoring underwater changes, search and rescue, and military and defense scenarios.

    Nevertheless, oceans cover two-thirds of the planet and largely remain unexplored. Has the time for a real underwater industry finally arrived? Where are the biggest opportunities? What are the major technical and business challenges? And which companies have already started impacting this new industry?

    Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) and remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) extend our ability to explore the deep sea much in the same way that space rovers have enhanced our understanding of remote planets. UUVs are now becoming cost-effective tools in applications ranging from deep-water survey for the offshore oil and gas industry to military operations to tracking sea life. The need for increased ocean observation for commercial as well as scientific purposes offers great potential for UUVs to enhance the performance of conventional ship-based operations, as well as the ability to operate in difficult-to-access areas such as below the Arctic ice.

    Here are three American companies (from the online Service Robots for Government and Corporate Use directory of The Robot Report) which exemplify this emerging industry. Each has a different technological orientation, market presence and sales plan - but all are emerging companies in the marine robotics business. [For a thorough - but very expensive ($7,000) - analysis of the defense side of the unmanned maritime systems marketplace, including listing 80+ vendors and their products, Market Intel Group is offering their "Unmanned Maritime Systems Defense & Security UUV & USV Markets, Technologies and Opportunities Outlook."]

    iRobot Corp., IRBT, NASDAQ

    iRobot's Seaglider Robot
    iRobot, pioneer of the cleaning robotic systems business and provider of the military's PackBot bomb disposal and other dangerous missions robots, has entered into marine robotics with a bang. iRobot has a balanced commercial, defense, research portfolio and is diversifying with cross-over products in the marine and healthcare sectors.

    In a recent talk with David Heinz, iRobot's VP of Maritime Systems, interesting aspects of their Enhanced Seaglider unmanned underwater vehicle and their whole family of underwater products came to light. He is convinced that underwater is where iRobot is going to be spending a lot more time.

    The Seaglider robot is a data collector. It measures temperature, salinity and other quantities in the ocean and is integrated with a global satellite system for automatic measurement and transmission of data. It is battery powered, capable of 3 to 4 dives and underwater glides per day and lasts for around 10 months on a single charge depending on the mission. More than 135 Seagliders have been delivered to various government agencies, US defense and research organizations. With high endurance, the Seaglider is a multi-mission robot which has survived and come back with shark bites and dents, working at a fraction of the cost of ship-based methods and at lesser risk. The price is in the $125,000 to $150,000 range depending on sensors and could go higher with more expensive payloads.

    Lots of underwater applications are addressed by iRobot's line of maritime robots. Two of the most important are likely to be harbor defense and tracking of illegal underwater activities. Other applications provide data support in aquatic monitoring, supplementing (with the prospect of replacement) sonobuoy systems used by the navy, hurricane monitoring for oil platforms, mine warfare, harbor defense, eg, operating a picket line with triangulation software to alert drug agencies when drug trafficking is suspected, etc. It can also be used to detect underwater nuclear radiation and temperature monitoring and some development has already started in this direction. There are a few challenges; one of them is an inability to operate in shallow waters because the devices get sucked with currents.

    Liquid Robotics, Privately Owned, Venture Funded

    Liquid Robotics' Wave Glider
    Another interesting robot is the wave glider from Liquid Robotics, a company focused on serving the scientific and oceanographic research communities. A submerged glider connected with a surface float by a 7 meter long tether, it is based on a look-down concept and scans data from the surface and within 20 meters of the underwater glider. Wave gliders harvest wave energy for its thrust and that gives it an added advantage of not being limited by any on-board power source although the above-water float is solar powered and uses that power for satellite communication.

    The Wave Glider supports a wide variety of sensor payloads and can keep station or travel from point to point. Data and instructions are transmitted to and from shore via satellite. Applications include climate science, tsunami warning, protected area monitoring, marine mammal observation, port and harbor security, transportation safety, maritime domain awareness, search and rescue, and commercial apps like fishery management, aquaculture, pollution detection and natural resource discovery. Military/government apps include naval oceanography, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, monitoring and managing economic zones, etc.

    Teledyne Technologies Inc., TDY, NYSE

    Teledyne Technologies is an aerospace/defense conglomerate and provides electronic and engineered subsystems for defense, space, environmental and nuclear applications. Robotics represent just a small portion of their overall revenue, however, three wholly-owned subsidiaries provide notable maritime products.
    Teledyne's family of
    marine robots
    1. Teledyne Benthos provides a line of modular UUVs and ROVs including the Stingray and MiniROVER. These ROVs are used for mine warfare, in-situ biological sampling, port and harbor security and ship hull inspection. They are also used for under-ice surveying, interior and exterior pipe inspection, salvage operations and offshore structure surveys. Their clientele include military, oil and gas companies, oceanographic institutes and marine and biological science research organizations.

    2. Teledyne Brown Engineering recently received a $53.1 million contract with the Navy to manufacture 100 Slocum LBS-G (Littoral Battlespace Sensing-Glider) gliders to acquire critical oceanographic data to improve fleet positioning during naval maneuvering. The LBS-G glider is a torpedo-shaped unmanned underwater vehicle about 2 meters long and uses changes in buoyancy along with its wings and tail-fin steering to glide through the water.

    3. Teledyne Webb Research has a novel way of describing their Slocum line of gliders: "A unique mobile network component capable of moving to specific locations and depths and occupying controlled spatial and temporal grids." Mobile network being the key descriptors. These battery and thermal energy powered gliders are used for subsurface sampling, carrying a wide range of sensors, patrolling for weeks and months at a time, interacting with multiple vehicles with minimal personnel and infrastructure to study and map the dynamic subsurface waters "around the clock and calendar."
    Perhaps the biggest opportunities for marine robotics, at present, are still with governments for their defense, security and oceanographic surveillance - and with big companies for their exploration of oil, rare earth materials, and maintenance and construction of underwater platforms. As marine applications expand to areas such as aquaculture and other commercial marketplaces, these robots will be constantly updating our current perception and understanding of sea life and the world beneath the water with lots of new findings. The current apps - all of which are performed autonomously for long periods of time at a fraction of the cost of present methods - are the just the tip of the iceberg in this emerging marine sector of the service robotics industry.

    Saturday, October 1, 2011

    Robotic Gift Suggestions for the 2011 Holiday Season

    This holiday season, people are looking to get their money's worth from gift giving. Gifts need to be either truly phenomenal, practical or inexpensive. In the phenomenal category, what's more exciting than getting a robot as a holiday gift? The Robot Report, a site which tracks the business of robotics, has prepared this list of 2011 Robotic Holiday Gift Suggestions to please almost every family member:
    • For Grandparents and teenagers: Parrot AR.Drone QuadriCopter - $299
    • For Mom: iRobot's Scooba bathroom floor cleaning robot - $299
    • For Dad: Adaptive cruise control robot option for new cars - $599 - $2,495
    • For science-interested kids 10+: LEGO Mindstorms NXT kit - $273
    • For robotic gadget geeks 16+: Willow Garage's TurtleBot starter mobile robot - $1,499 -- OR -- Bilibot starter mobile robot with arm and gripper - $1,200.
    • For girls younger than 10: Penbo the affectionate waddling penguin - $45 -- OR-- Fijit the squishy dancing friend - $42
    • For the philanthropic: MyKeepon - $49 (part of the proceeds go to support autism research) -- OR -- donate a $280,000 PR2 to your alma mater's robotics lab
    • For readers of all ages: Selected books about robots and robotics - $10-$221
    See below for product descriptions, prices and where to buy.

    * * * * *

    MyKeepon:
    A small robot that reacts to touch and music.

    MyKeepon Robot Toy
    Reacts to touch, sounds and music
    • Originally developed to study nonverbal interaction and social development with autistic children, its $30,000 price tag kept it away from most. 
    • Now reconfigured to be a toy, a portion of the revenue will be used to enable researchers and practitioners to use the $30,000 Keepon version of the robot in autism therapy.
    • Available exclusively from Toys R Us in the U.S. for $49.
    Fijit
    A squishy robot that can dance and tell jokes.

    Fijit by Mattel
    Voice recognition, beat detection, 100 built-in phrases and jokes
    • Similar to MyKeepon but less altruistic, Fijit from Mattel is an interactive, pokable plaything for young girls.
    • Cute video of Fijit telling jokes and interacting with iPad.
    • $49 plus the cost of the app available at Amazon.
    Sphero:
    A sphere with inside lights that can be controlled with smartphone apps.

    Sphero from Orbotix
    iOS and Android game apps control ball
    • Coming to market in time for the holiday season, Sphero is a robotic ball controlled by your smartphone (iOS and Android).
    • Cute video of Spero ball and kitten interacting.
    • $129 plus the cost of the app from Sphero.
    A penguin that waddles and sings with her baby.

    Penbo and her Bebe
    Lovable robotic toy from Bossa Nova Robotics
    • Specially designed for pre-teen girls, Penbo is affection to her owner and her baby.
    • She responds to touch and sound and has a pouch. Can operate autonomously or with remote control
    • $45 at Amazon.
    AR.Drone:
    Quadricoptor for in/outdoor use controled from your smartphone or tablet.


    Parrot's AR.Drone Quadricopter
    Rated #1 Consumer Electronics Product of 2010 and still going strong
    • Two cameras, front-facing and bottom-facing, stream live video to the screen of your tablet or smartphone for capture.
    • Augmented Reality (AR) apps enable dog fights and video games.
    • $299 at Amazon plus the cost of the apps.

    Adaptive Cruise Control:
    Automatically maintains a safe distance between your vehicle and the car ahead.


    Adaptive Cruise Control
    Available as an option from most car companies
    • With embedded robotic systems, cars keep getting smarter and safer all the time. Adaptive cruise control is a “smart” system that actively maintains a preset distance between vehicles rather than a preset speed. A laser or radar range finder sensor in the front of the vehicle measures the distance to the vehicle ahead, and the system automatically maintains a safe distance as traffic speeds up and slows down.
    • Available in higher-end versions from most car companies at prices ranging from $495 to $2,500.
    • Say or write on your card: "Hey Dad. If you are going to buy a new car, I'll pay for the adaptive cruise control option."
    • Lane awarenessnight vision pedestrian detection, and car-to-car danger warning systems are in the wings.

    Willow Garage PR2:
    Life-sized robot able to navigate in human environments and grasp and manipulate objects.


    Willow Garage's Pool-playing PR2 Personal Robot
    For millionaires and rich alumni to gift to their alma maters
    • Open-source library of functions includes folding laundry, fetching beer, playing pool, etc.
    • Watch laundry-folding video here.
    • Ideal gift from alumni to robotics lab at alma mater.
    • $280,000 for two-armed personal robot; $200,000 for single-armed PR2. Both with integrated Kinect device.
    Scooba:
    A floor washing robot for bathrooms, kitchens and other non-carpeted floors.

    iRobot's Scooba 230 Robot
    Floor washing robot for bathrooms and other floors

    • Removes up to 98% of common household bacteria from hardwood, tile and linoleum floors.
    • Informative video of iRobot's Scooba 230 robot.
    • Cleans bathroom floors better than competing robotic products.
    • $299 from Amazon plus $13 for cleaning fluid.
    LEGO Mindstorms NXT Kit:
    Buildable, programmable robot kit with sensors, servo motors and a microprocessor.

    LEGO Mindstorms NXT Robot Kit
    Buildable, programmable full-featured functional robot learning/teaching experience

    • LEGO kit includes 612 pieces, 4 sensors, 3 servo motors, and 32-bit microprocessor with Bluetooth and USB links to PC and Mac software with drag and drop programming.
    • Instructions for 4 different robot configurations.
    • $273 from Amazon.
    Willow Garage TurtleBot:
    Programmable mobile robot kit with Kinect sensor, iRobot Create mobile base and a microprocessor.

    Willow Garage's mobile starter TurtleBot
    With (A) mobile base, (B) 3D sensor, (C) PC and (D) TurtleBot hardware
    • TurtleBot uses off-the-shelf, low-cost hardware components that includes Willow Garage's open-source SDK based on ROS (Robotic Operating System), an iRobot Create mobile platform, Microsoft's XBox Kinect sensor, an Asus netbook PC and gyro. 
    • The TurtleBot SDK integrates all the software you need to get it running and comes with advanced capabilities like mapping and navigation.
    • $1,499 assembled; $1,399 in kit form. (Can be purchased without netbook and/or iRobot mobile platform if you already have either of them.)
    Bilibot Project's Bilibot:A robot starter robot at an affordable price.

    Bilibot Project mobile starter Bilibot
    Comes with an arm and gripper, mobile platform, netbook, ROS software and a Kinect device
    • Started at MIT through exploring uses of Microsoft Xbox's new Kinect sensor, the Bilibot Project is producing this sophisticated robotics platform at an affordable price. The project has assembled the various components and integrated all the necessary software with ROS.
    • Designed primarily for the education and hobbyist communities, the Bilibot is a robotics platform for exploring and creating.
    • $1,200.
    Book Selections:

    • Best sellers, thought provoking, scary, insightful, detailed - this hand-picked selection of books about robots will provide hours of interesting reading and valuable additions to robot fans libraries.
    • Available from Amazon - $10 to $221

      Notes from IROS 2011 San Francisco

      San Francisco city view from aboard the IROS 2011 sunset dinner cruise party boat
      By Frank Tobe. Publisher, The Robot Report

      The week long IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS 2011) was host to more than 1,500 roboticists and robot-interested people from 40 different countries, including a prominent group of well-known speakers and exhibitors.

      The conference and exhibition, in addition to the presentation of hundreds of scientific papers about robotics, included field and dinner trips which took advantage of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley's unique venues. Monday had a field trip to the robotic labs at UC Berkeley; Tuesday had a sunset dinner cruise in San Francisco Bay; Friday and Saturday had field trips to Adept  (a manufacturer known for their ultra fast parallel robots), and the robot and AI labs at Stanford; and Wednesday had a dinner at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park with a peek at the Picasso masterpieces presently being exhibited.

      The science of robotics was the principal draw for the attendees to the conference: to present and also to hear new technologies in and about robotics. Fascinating new developments in micro manufacturing to produce super-small devices (millirobots); replacing robotic mechanisms based on mimicking biology (biomimetic robotics); breakthroughs and incremental improvements to research robots of all types; and the many uses of Microsoft's Kinect device were in evidence throughout the conference rooms and exhibition halls.

      I'm not a robotic scientist and The Robot Report mainly tracks the business side of robotics even though the science and research side feeds their product development. My background is computers, programming, software and systems. Consequently I'm not the best judge of what was new, groundbreaking, disruptive or just plain whimsical at the conference. I did, however, see and hear a few things that were of interest to me:

      • A talk by Bernd Liepert, from KUKA Laboratories in Germany, describing KUKA's roadmap from industrial robots to entering the service robot marketplace. This is the first time I've heard any executive from any of the major robot manufacturers even acknowledge their interest in entering the service robot field.
      • The UC Berkeley micro manufacturing process for making all types of tiny search and rescue and surveillance robots.
      • Seeing the Kinect device hooked up and working with many personal robots (Asimo, PR2, etc.) and UAVs copters.
      • The mix of languages overheard - only 40% of the attendees were from the U.S.
      • Competition for da Vinci's turf by robotic surgical devices from startups in China, Germany and Japan.
      • Crowd fascination with swarming robots, quadcopters, and UAVs of all types. I always follow the crowds at trade shows to see what is drawing their attention - and these three drew the largest number of gawkers. Harvard's Kilobot booth was of particular interest to the conference goers.
      • Many were interested in the ability of underwater robotic devices to sample, analyze, track and upload data that shows movement of various underwater things (sound, minerals, mammals, currents, salinity, foreign matter, etc.).
      • There were many discussions about collaborative control of multiple robotic devices and unmanned vehicles.
      • Three open-to-all Plenary Sessions covered design, bio-robotics and self-driving cars with notable robotic experts Bernard Roth, Shigeo Hirose, Gerd Hirzinger and Marc Raibert for design, Ruzena Bajcsy, Alain Berthoz, Heinrich B├╝lthoff and Mandyam Srinivasan covering bio-robotics, and Henrik Christensen, Sebastian Thrun and Chris Urmson on self-driving cars.
      • Finally, there was much discussion about how the "cloud" would impact robotics by offloading processing and libraries from the bot to the cloud and whether or not (and how) this was workable.
      Click to see 15 photos taken at IROS 2011 by the Denver Post.
      Many exhibitors were showing personal and other types of robots for use as educational tools to learn the many sub-disciplines involved in robotics. Lesson plans for both students and teachers accompany their robots. Companies like these (with the exception of KUKA, where educational products aren't intended to make a profit) are limited in their growth potential because there are so few schools with the money to buy their product. Unlike robot manufacturers that produce hundreds and even thousands of robots a year, these companies build just a few.

      Other small company exhibitors provided specialized robots for scientific research yet no matter how altruistic their research objectives might be, their marketplace is quite limited. This was the essence of IROS for me: as much as incremental improvements in the science of robotics is necessary, much of the material presented didn't solve any mass market need nor disrupt any present production or process methodology. One exception was Aldabaran's Nao robot. There are over 1,500 Naos in the field with avid fans providing software apps and updates and demanding fixes where they are needed.

      Consequently whenever I asked any of the conference exhibitors when will a real personal robot be available to perform consumer applications (like doing the laundry, dishes, household cleanup, and cleaning the bathroom and toilet) at a price that people are willing to pay, the answer was always the same: "It's five years off."

      Saturday, September 10, 2011

      "ROS Everywhere!" says Willow Garage's Steve Cousins

      Pieter Abbeel was one of this year's MIT Technology Review 35 Innovators Under 35 (TR 35) award winners as was Brian Gerkey of Willow Garage. Pieter and his team at UC Berkeley programmed a robot to learn how to perform tasks such as folding laundry without detailed instructions. Brian oversees development of the Willow Garage open source ROS software used to control the robot.  Photo credit: Technology Review, Winnie Wintermeyer.
      Brian Gerkey
      Director, Open Source Development
      Willow Garage
      By Frank Tobe. Publisher, The Robot Report

      Willow Garage's ROS (Robotic Operating System) provides a collection of software libraries and tools to help software developers create robot applications. ROS provides device drivers, visualizers, message-passing, package management, and advanced libraries to help application engineers understand camera, video and 3D data.

      ROS is open source and free to use, change and commercialize. The system is used by a growing number of popular personal service and research robots including one at the University of California in Berkeley (shown in the picture above) that learned how to process a basket of laundry from washing to folding. Gerkey believes ROS will allow entrepreneurs to create new commercial applications for robots even if they don't have extensive robotics expertise. Gerkey said in the write-up about his Technology Review TR 35 award, "The goal [of ROS] is to help people who have ideas for what robots can do in the marketplace by providing a common language for robots."

      The industrial robotics industry is confronted today with the modification of production processes due to the trend toward individualization of consumer products. This requires that handling of robots be much easier, with greater flexibility and rapidity, and that accuracy has to be increased.

      Thus it was a big leap forward last week when Yaskawa America's Motoman Robotics Division signed a collaboration agreement with the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to port Willow Garage's ROS to the Motoman line of industrial robots. This is the first authorized porting of ROS to an industrial robot. SwRI plans to develop, demonstrate and release to the open-source community an interface between Motoman robots and ROS thereby taking this award-winning software beyond the realm of universities and research and into the world of business.
      SwRI (Southwest Research Institute) is an independent, nonprofit, applied research and development organization based in San Antonio, Texas, with more than 3,000 employees and an annual research volume of more than $500 million. 
      Yaskawa America Motoman Robotics division offers arc welding robots, spot welding robots, painting robots, handling and other robots. It's most recent two-armed handling robots are being implemented in the automotive industry in Germany and Japan.
      W. Clay Flannigan, Manager of the Robotics and Automation Engineering Section of SwRI, said:
      We are working to build a general purpose interface between the broad manipulation and perception capabilities of the ROS framework and the highly reliable architecture of industrial robots. We plan to implement the interface at a low-level within the existing robot controller that enables the capabilities of the ROS manipulation stack, while maintaining the safety inherent in the industrial controller. By providing the solution as open source, we hope to build a community around the use of ROS in a wide variety of industrial applications. Ideally, the community will expand to encompass more robots, sensors and industrial controllers, and we hope to contribute to the process.

      We plan to release the source in the first quarter of 2012.
      Motoman Dual-arm Robot
      Future versions of this robot may have a head
      containing camera's and a Kinect device.
      Erik Nieves, Technology Director for Yaskawa America's Motoman Robotics Division, explained why Yaskawa America is pursuing an open source controller interface for it's Motoman line of robots:
      Yaskawa's strategy is to offer many controllers for the many different audiences and applications that our robots address. This ROS adaption is in line with that strategy.

      The next step for industrial robotics is to be more sensor aware; to be able to accomodate the many new capabilities showing up in the service sector. It's clear that ROS is able to handle all of these and it saves our programming department from writing drivers for each and every possible configuration. We want ROS for these next generation devices which will come first to ROS.
      A near-term goal of the project is to demonstrate advanced material handling solutions that leverage the path planning, grasp planning, and perception frameworks within ROS to enable robotic solutions that would be difficult or expensive with current solutions. One can only imagine the longer-term future. Perhaps ROS could become the universal robot controller that most end users wish for. Perhaps the days of the clunky teaching pendant will soon be replaced by an iPad or tablet running an ROS applet.

      ROS is not the first attempt at a free software for robot control. Orocos, an EU-funded project along the same lines, began in 2001 and has evolved into a commercially utilized package for use in the machine-tool industry (although the Berlin Racing Team of the 2007 Urban Grand Challenge Competition used the Orocos Real-Time Toolkit as framework for building software components and ended up one of the semifinalists selected by DARPA). Because of its applicability to industrial applications, the realtime Orocos framework has grown into the machine control field and outgrown its robotics roots.

      Steve Cousins
      CEO, Willow Garage
      Willow Garage's CEO Steve Cousins, in addition to providing the colorful title to this article ("ROS Everywhere!"), commented on the import of the SwRI Motoman ROS porting project. He explained that current-day industrial robots often don't need the extensive vision, mobility and navigation capabilities available in the growing world of service robotics. But vision and navigation systems are the next level in the evolution of industrial robotics as they branch out of the automotive industry and into all the other areas of production and material handling, and ROS is a good entry system to program, simulate and implement these new industrial and material handling applications using all the new navigation and vision features.

      Yaskawa's Motoman line of robots will, by using ROS, at no significant research cost on the software side, be able to add features to their existing robot manipulators enabling them to compete in terms of handling new manufacturing processes. ROS and Willow Garage are getting a boost to the credibility of ROS by this very real and timely proof of concept. Also getting a big boost are the many industrial integrators who add a wide range of industrial expertise to the ROS community thereby making both groups stronger.

      Sunday, August 14, 2011

      China's Mammoth Intro to Robotics

      by Frank Tobe and Manoj Sahi

      According to Xinhua, the official press agency of the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC), Taiwanese technology giant Foxconn will deploy 1 million robots over the next three years to improve efficiency and reduce labor for tasks better suited to a robot. The robots will be used to do traditional industrial robot work such as spraying, welding and assembling.

      What does it means to robotics industry?
      Engadget suggested that ABB would get the contract to provide the robots, perhaps in partnership with Foxconn itself. More companies may be involved; very little information has been provided thus far. We’ll have to wait and watch. Certainly, this is big news for the robotic manufacturing industry. If for no other reason, Foxconn’s deployment will more than double the world’s industrial robot population. And it will do so outside of the auto industry. Next Big Future blogger Brian Wang says, "This seems to be the start of a renewed push to automation in industry. If other companies in China follow, then we could see ten times or more the number of industrial robots."

      Why is manufacturing so important to national politics?
      In America, manufacturing has been the engine of growth since the Industrial Revolution, and developing great products a national pride. Manufacturing within one’s own country helps reduce the trade deficit and promotes healthy economic growth through profits, wages and sub-contracts. At present, manufacturing represents 21% of America’s GNP and more important, 50% of exported goods. There is also a security/defense component to sustaining a capable homeland manufacturing resource.

      Outsourcing weaponry, technology and high-tech R&D is subject to the whims and events of foreign powers and not under a country’s own control. Many nations understand the necessity for their homeland manufacturing and have initiated stimulus programs to sustain that capability and also to promote the use of new breed of robots to enhance it. American is late to the party with it’s AMP and NRI programs, but has just funded $500 million, $70 million of which is for robotics research relating to co-robotics.

      The Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) and National Robotics Initiative (NRI) focus on the importance of sustaining a strong homeland manufacturing capability which, in addition to helping offset negative trade balances, enables the manufacture of its own high-priority (military, defense, security, space and highly technical) products. America is just beginning to fund what other countries have been funding, in larger amounts for many years now, Korea in particular.

      Is the Foxconn pronouncement a wake up call to America?
      In 2009, Harvard Business Review published "Restoring American Competitiveness." Here are a few excerpts:
      • Beginning in 2000, the country’s trade balance in high-technology products—historically a bastion of U.S. strength—began to decrease. By 2002, it turned negative for the first time and continued to decline through 2007.
      • America has lost or is in the process of losing the knowledge, skilled people, and supplier infrastructure needed to manufacture many of the cutting-edge products it invented.
      • Even more worrisome, average real weekly wages have essentially remained flat since 1980, meaning that the U.S. economy has been unable to provide a rising standard of living for the majority of its people.
      A recent cover story about “Speedup” in America by Mother Jones magazine provides poignant examples of how this trend has affected American workers.

      Yes, there is a growing body of real and alarming evidence proclaiming the need for change – but, with America’s polarized and contentious Congress and fearful populace, nobody appears able to do anything about it. Are robotics and Foxconn the wakeup call? Probably not. It's more likely that the Standard & Poor's credit downgrade from triple A to double got everyone's attention.  It sure was felt in the stock market - and robotic companies fared as well as all the others... they lost significantly, dramatically, and did serious damage to investor confidence and their investment portfolios.

      If this explanation from Standard & Poor's isn't a wakeup call, I don't know what is:
      We lowered our long-term rating on the U.S. because we believe that the prolonged controversy over raising the statutory debt ceiling and the related fiscal policy debate indicate that further near-term progress containing the growth in public spending, especially on entitlements, or on reaching an agreement on raising revenues is less likely than we previously assumed and will remain a contentious and fitful process. We also believe that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration agreed to this week falls short of the amount that we believe is necessary to stabilize the general government debt burden by the middle of the decade.
      Moody's, as reported by The Wall Street Journal, chimed in saying:
      Though the U.S. economic recovery looked healthy at the beginning of the year, a series of events have hurt business, consumer and investor confidence, Moody’s said. These include surging prices for food and gasoline, natural disasters in Japan, Europe’s debt crisis and, most recently, the U.S. debt woes.

      [Moody's] now expects real gross domestic product to increase at an annualized rate of about 2% in the second half of this year and just over 3% next year. The economy needs to grow 2.5% to 3% a year to create jobs fast enough to keep the unemployment rate stable.
      How are the industrial robotic companies reformulating to stay competitive?
      A new breed of flexible industrial arms is on its way. Almost all major companies in industrial robotics are trying to bring to market a similar kind of robot to cater to the needs of new-age manufacturing. Traditional companies like ABB, KUKA, Yaskawa Motoman and Fanuc are trying to bring their robots out of their cages in a step by step manner of evolution, while new entrants and researchers are trying to build entirely new kinds of revolutionary devices.

      ABB's FRIDA two-armed robots, from the ABB website
      The evolutionary robots are the 1-2-3 armed robots which have evolved from their older versions. These robots are highly suitable for large scale fixed factory-line processes. They have high precision but less flexibility to be a co-worker and need a lot of evolutionary steps to be able to accomodate medium scale dynamic environments.

      Courtesy iClipart.com
      On the other side are the revolutionary companies such as Heartland Robotics whose focus is to develop robotic assistants - the so-called "co-robots." These will be more affordable, easily trainable, safe and flexible for human environment but not as precise as the evolutionary ones. And they will address the needs of the biggest manufacturing sector in the country: SMEs - small and medium-sized enterprises. This video, made by the EU SME Project, visually highlights those needs.

      Will robots make a difference?
      Certainly the Foxconn deployment will be a boon to one or more non-U.S. industrial robot manufacturer (America long-ago lost this market - a market started in America - to foreign competitors). Foxconn's actions might speed up the use of industrial robots in other high-volume production situations, but it's not a market-changing phenomena. Instead, one thing is clear - that the service robotics market, where most of the growth in robotics is happening, and which is not dominated by any single company or country (as is the case with industrial robots) is the market where there is hope for American manufacturing.

      If any competitive breakthrough product(s) are to offset Foxconn's plans, and the very-likely roll-out of the other foreign industrial robot makers to parlay Foxconn's actions with new-industry deployments of their own, particularly in Asia, if some new true robotic assistant is developed that is low-cost, lower cost of entry, easy to train, flexible, and safe to work alongside humans, the first to market will create a whole new arena, a whole new marketplace, with new manufacturing jobs, and a whole new product family ushering in the "real" robotic age. That's why everyone is so interested in Heartland Robotics. They are a privately-funded start-up focusing on a large, untapped market with a low cost product family perfectly matched up to the needs of the market. If they can pull it off, there's hope. If not, some other company, somewhere else in the world, will do so and the global SME marketplace will be theirs.

      Robots help keep costs down and productivity high. The cost of entry isn't prohibitive but involves changing the mix of labor from skilled to very skilled. They are and will continue to be a staple in the manufacturing arsenal. Further, maintaining a homeland base of manufacturing is important for security, jobs, the balance of trade, and as part of sustaining a middle class. Robots can help, but national leadership can inspire the changes needed for America to play the role it has in the past, and wants for the future... a role which includes an ever-increasing use of robots in all facits of society.