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.

* * * * *

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.
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.
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.
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.
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."