Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Credit Suisse Picks 7 Automation/Robotics Stocks

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

Max Nisen of Business Insider wrote recently of a list of seven stock picks discovered in a Credit Suisse report on long term trends. One of those trends was increasing global automation (particularly in China) and the seven picks relate to companies poised to benefit from those needs.

The article and list prompted a series of quick personal opinions concerning almost all of their selections which I thought might be interesting to followers of the robotics industry.

Below are the seven Credit Suisse stock picks with a brief description of what the companies do, my best understanding of Credit Suisse's reason for selecting the stock for the list, and my opinions as to the particular company.

1.  Siemens AG (NYSE:SI)
CS Reason: low PE
Source: Siemens Annual Report
Siemens derives 31% of its profits from factory automation in which they provide everything but the robots: control and monitoring systems, inspection and vision systems, sensor systems, power supplies, manufacturing and warehousing systems, etc. Siemens also makes consumer products and provides transportation systems and health care and hospital products.
FT Comment: Because Siemens is into so many different activities, they are a good conglomerate but not necessarily a good bet for automation and robotics. Their stock moves to a different drummer then a company that is devoted only to robotics such as, for example, FANUC. It may be a good conservative bet for a long-term hold... if you want to invest in conglomerates. Other conglomerates with some involvement in robotics include Textron (NYSE:TST) and Teledyne (NYSE:TDY) for example.
2.  Rockwell Automation (NYSE:ROK)
CS Reason: possible acquisition target
Source: Rockwell Automation Annual Report
Rockwell provides automation power, control and information systems. Many factory robot systems include Rockwell control boxes to drive their robots and integrate their activities into the larger factory system. Rockwell and its subsidiaries also provide servos, power systems and sensors.
FT Comment: Up until recently the computing power necessary to compute the complex math of robotic movement and control the multiple motors that drive a robot were offloaded into separate boxes for that purpose. Rockwell has been a leader in this field for a long time. But with the cost and size of CPUs dropping and the need for mobility in all the newer-tech robots, Rockwell may face an uncertain future and a diminishing share of the robotics ancillary products and control systems marketplace.
3.  FANUC Corp. (TYO:6954)
CS Reason: Has 20% of global robot market
FANUC is a Japanese company mainly engaged in factory automation equipment including CNC systems, laser products and all forms of robots and robotics. They just completed a new "black" factory for the production of robots for sale in China.
FT Comment: FANUC is predominantly a robotics company and hasn't suffered too much from the tsunami disaster. They have been ramping up because there is great demand for their robots and systems in China as well as the rest of the world. Unless there emerges a Chinese competitor in the near term -- such as Foxconn might become -- FANUC has the potential for success over the next many years. Other robot manufacturers similar to FANUC include ABB (NYSE:ABB), KUKA (ETR:KU2), Yaskawa Electric (TYO:6506) and Adept (NASDAQ:ADEP).
4.  Delta Electronics (TPE:2308)
CS Reason: Competitive in Chinese market with high operating profits
Delta Electronics is a Taiwan-based supplier of power supplies, power switching devices, servo motors, and video and electromechanical products. Industrial automation products represent 8% of revenue but 20+% of profits.
FT Comment: Taiwan-based Delta Electronics' motors are a staple in China and barring anything unforeseen, they are a good bet to continue that trend. However, industrial automation products are a small portion of their gross revenue, are considered a commodity product, and consequently may not be an important component of the value of the company. It may be an interesting company for other purposes, but not automation.
5.  Keyence (TYO:6861)
CS Reason: Will benefit from aging societies investment in automation
Source: Keyence Annual Report
Keyence designs and produces sensors, vision and laser imaging and range-finding technologies used in robot mobility and factory automation applications and vision systems.
FT Comment: Microsoft and PrimeSense blindsided many of the laser-scanner companies with their new-tech low-cost scanners and eloquent software. The marketplace now expects that low cost but, at present, cannot meet its needs for scanning with Kinect-like devices. [This is changing however with better and better software.] That, combined with a slow recovery from the twin economic and tsunami crises have hurt Keyence, a Japan-based company. Even though they are cash rich and profitable at present, they haven't fully recovered from the economic crisis and their annual reports don't seem to indicate research efforts that will enable lower cost technologies in the future. Currently there is sharp pressure on pricing and Keyence, Optech, V-Gen, Velodyne and other LIDAR and laser-scanning manufacturers are beginning to feel it. A few of these companies are embracing Kinect-like devices to supplement their product lines but I see the automation marketplace finding newer technologies at much lower cost from newly emerging companies to fill this very necessary vision/mobility task. Notable alternative vendors providing vision systems for robotics and automation include Cognex (NASDAQ:CGNX) and Raytheon (NYSE:RTN). The biggest and most known provider of laser scanners is SICK AG, a privately held company.
6.  Mitsubishi Electric (TYO:6503)
CS Reason: Market leader in computers that control automated production machines
Source: Mitsubishi Electric Annual Report
Mitsubishi Electric designs and manufactures heavy industrial electrical equipment as well as power modules, consumer electronics and robots. 20-30% of their operating profits are derived from the sale of factory automation equipment.
FT Comment: Mitsubishi has been a market leader in industrial robotics and the computers that control them. And they have a big and well-respected sales presence in China. They do not have much of a presence in the emerging service robotics sector however, and this suggests that they will do well as an industrial robotics provider but may not capture market share in either the emerging SME or service robotics markets.
7.  TECO (TPE:1504)
CS Reason: Expanding 10% market share of motors and servos
Teco AC motor drives
TECO is a Taiwanese manufacturer of all types of electrical motors and electrical control products including those used in and with robotics and factory automation. They also have a consumer products line and a big market share in China.
FT Comment: Robots and factory automation systems require all sorts of equipment and systems to do their tasks. Electrical motors and their control systems are integral to that process. But there are many providers and TECO is just one -- Yaskawa Electric and ABB are names more familiar to the robotics world that provide similar servos and electrical equipment and systems. To some extent, this is a commodity business with ever-lower prices and global competition; not a particularly appealing market for the long term.
* * * 

What I See:

Frank Tobe
The Robot Report
The opinions expressed above are based on what I see happening in factory automation, industrial robotics and other types of robotics involved in the production, movement and handling of products over the next few years.
Industrial robotics as we know it -- caged arms welding, painting and manipulating long streams of mass-produced automotive and electrical goods -- will continue to grow at a healthy pace as more of the world stays competitive by automating their factories. The major players in this field are robot manufacturers KUKA, ABB, Yaskawa Motoman, Mitsubishi, FANUC and providers of ancillary systems and equipment like Rockwell Automation, Delta Electronics, Keyence, Cognex and others. Many research firms have projected steady growth for this sector at 3-5% CAGR for the rest of this decade.
Other types of factory automation may not be as visible as a robotic arm; instead it might be a process control or material handling system that is robotic in nature. This robotic-like form of automation and industrial robotics are both moving toward produce-on-demand systems which require great mechanical flexibility and complex software and systems. This is a moving target which progresses as technology does -- literally changing day by day -- and utilizes advanced sensors, fast computer processing, massive data manipulation and complex algorithms. 
It's not just visible robots but whole robotic-like automation systems that are enabling companies to compete with low-cost labor from off shore. This is true even in countries like China which is beginning to upgrade their product quality and worker efficiency while coping with higher wages -- and they are doing this through automating as much as they can.
Far more companies are beginning to automate to stay competitive than just big factories. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are propelling the service robotics segment of the robotics industry forward to new capabilities and expectations. SMEs need robots that are plug and play, easily trainable, have vision capabilities, are super flexible and safe to work alongside -- just like their iPads and apps from the App Store. Thus manufacturers of stand-alone control systems and companies that provide systems integration may not be as needed in the SME marketplace as they were (and for the time being are) for big factory robotics. New co-robot manufacturers like Rethink Robotics, Redwood Robotics and Universal Robots (Denmark), and software developers like Universal Robotics (US) and their Neocortex control system for 3D sensing of random objects and then integrating that data into user systems (e.g., into Yaskawa's Motoman 2-armed robots) -- all privately held -- may become disruptive and take away market share from the bigger companies.
Up until recently, neither vision-enabled systems nor mobility in manufacturing has been economically feasible, but that is changing. Mobile robots today move things from here to there and can be summoned and instructed by iPads. Buyers expect that mobile robotic devices be self-contained and encapsulate their various systems within the device; again, no need for stand-alone control systems or systems integration except, perhaps, in the Cloud. And vision-enabled robotic systems are proliferating and making it possible to get more from existing robots. 
Source: Tesla Motors
Case in point is Tesla Motors which uses multiple tools for their robots to allow them to do a quick tool changes and perform multiple functions, e.g., welding, riveting, bonding and installing a component, yet the core robots are old-style fixed-to-the-floor KUKA, Fanuc and Fronius robots and mobile SmartCarts from Motion Controls.
Almost every non-industrial robotic system (which, for lack of a better term is presently called Service Robotics) involved in making, moving or handing products, has the expectation of mobility, safety, vision, trainability without programming, and great flexibility. That is where the industry seems to be heading and the industrial players are slowly transitioning to be able to provide for that need. The companies mentioned above are beginning that transition -- but not very fast because they have a healthy and profitable growing industrial market already. Perhaps newer more adventurous companies will move more quickly to capture this market segment.
There are publicly-traded exciting companies out there that will likely benefit from the trend toward automation. 3D printer companies like Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) and 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) will play a key role in this emerging market sector but privately held companies like MakerBot may register to go public and give them some competition. Kiva Systems and their innovative warehousing system was recently acquired by Amazon (the acquisition occurred in lieu of Kiva going public). This reminded me how important Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) is in providing material handing in addition to being an online sales force. To quote Bruce Welty in the Huffington Post:
During the California Gold Rush, there were many fortunes made and lost but one of the more enduring successes was Levi-Strauss, a clothier to all miners. Levi's never had to worry about which miners were going to discover gold; they all needed pants. In the New American Economy, these trends all converge around advanced fulfillment capabilities. Amazon has invested in its fulfillment capability for just that reason. The "Levi-Strauss-like" opportunity of today is in Fulfillment or, more specifically, Robotic Fulfillment.
Finally, Credit Suisse didn't mention other areas for automation and there are many. One example is hospital automation -- a big market for pill dispensing robots, mobile tugs to deliver linens, meals, trash and medicines, autonomous cleaners of all types and remote presence robots. Three public companies of note are Swisslog (SW:SLOG), Adept (NASDAQ:ADEP) and iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT) and two at-present privately-held companies are InTouch Health and Aethon.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Two Different Approaches to Spawn Robotics; One Common Thread

By Babs Carryer, Adjunct Prof, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Advisor,
Carnegie Mellon University, Editor and Author, New Venturist**

Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

Sometimes a company is founded because it stumbles upon a niche that it can fill better than any other company. Such a company is RE2 (Robotics Engineering Excellence). Founded by Jorgen Pedersen as a contract engineering house to fill a need for unmanned systems engineering expertise within Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC), RE2 now provides mobile manipulation systems for defense and safety.

Another company finding their unique niche is Liquid Robotics. More about them later.

RE2 began with an SBIR

A lot of robotics companies started with defense research objectives. Some, like iRobot, have branched into other applications commercializing what they developed for the DoD into consumer products. RE2 has stayed in defense because it’s really good at what it does – providing high torque, high payload robotic arms and manipulators.

Arm manipulation is a niche within defense -- a large niche -- as it is in robotics in general. Capitalizing on research and product development to meet the military's high torque, heavy payload requirements, RE2 is not only a provider to the military but is beginning to commercialize those special capabilities into non-defense applications as well.

RE2 is a success story for the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program. Founded in 2001, RE2 remained a contract engineering firm until 2005. The company won its first DoD SBIR in 2006 to develop a small robotic arm for unmanned ground vehicles. The Phase I and Phase II awards, totaling $850K, set the course for the future of RE2. The military was keenly interested in the RE2 approach because existing robotic arms weren’t very strong or precise. CEO Jorgen Pedersen puts it, “That was enough for us to focus on and realize that we could solve those problems. Then later we realized the arms needed to be faster, more modular, and less expensive. We fulfilled on those capabilities too.”

Those first SBIRs allowed the company to become a recognized expert in mobile manipulation. SBIRs also allowed the company to grow over a several year period from six to 18. Since then it has won dozens of SBIRs that have helped fund the development of its robotic technology and provide jobs. Today, RE2 employs 60 and is growing by about 20 every year.

RE2 never had any outside investment. It never needed it, given the string of SBIRs. But Jorgen doesn’t believe that the awards represent money without a return: “We have provided the DoD with $6.5 million in revenue return so far from their $850K investment in our first SBIRs. On the SBIR commercialization index, we are 90 out of 100 because they know that we have a 90% chance of commercializing technology over anyone else.”

Liquid Robotics: A Passion for Whale Songs

Liquid Robotics has developed a unique wave glider for science, oil and gas exploration, oil production management, environmental and spill detection and a myriad other applications using only renewable energy. It has blossomed into a very promising start-up company with a broad market: any business which needs to monitor, measure, surveil and explore our oceans. Liquid has recently created two new entities to handle its success: a joint venture with Schlumberg and a new Defense/National Security subsidiary. Liquid will soon be offering a new business: ocean data as a service for those who don't wish to own and operate their own wave gliders. Clients specify their data needs, geographic areas and duration and Liquid Robotics provides the data.

The Wave Glider development was the result of a single man’s passion for whale songs. Joe Rizzi, Chairman of Jupiter Research Foundation, had a love for the sounds of whales as they migrated along the coasts of Hawaii to Alaska. He wanted to capture their songs “live”. Not an easy task -- to develop a device capable of capturing the pure sounds of the whales and stay out at sea for extended periods. After a few years experimenting, Joe enlisted Roger Hine, a mechanical engineer and Stanford University robotics expert, to help develop an unmoored, station-keeping data buoy. It was from this partnership they developed the first Wave Glider.

The original intent was purely to invent a way to capture whale songs. After they had developed the first Wave Glider and were testing in the waters off of the Big Island, they were approached on the possible commercialization of their invention by entrepreneurs looking beyond whale songs.

Early funding was predominately done by the non-profit Jupiter Research Foundation. Roger Hine came to the project with his own funds and then headed Liquid Robotics, which, in 2007, was spun off from Jupiter Research, with angel investors and mutual friends of Joe and Roger. This money seeded the early development and critical endurance/mission testing. In May/June of 2011, Vantage Point Capital Partners and Schlumberger invested a Series D round of $22M.

A Common Thread

RE2 and Liquid Robotics share one common thread: they provided a solution involving robotics to solve a real need. They didn't provide a technology and then search for applications that fit that technology. RE2's Jorgen said, “Even on the military side, it’s still not about the robotics. We are helping to save lives. What is the price of a human life? What is the amount of money that the military will invest to train and protect their most valuable resource, people? If we can help disarm the improvised explosive device (IED) on the road, that’s a no-brainer. And that’s a market need!”

Jorgen cites the acceleration of viable robotics companies from the September 11, 2001 catastrophe: “9-11 was bad but it was a catalyst for ground robotics. In 2002 there were four robots deployed. By 2004, it had gone to12. By 2005, 163, and by 2006, 2,000 robots, an order of magnitude jump each year. 7,000 robots were deployed by 2010.” Jorgen sees that trend continuing as robots are demystified and integrated into products and services.

Similarly, Liquid Robotics had a need to develop an autonomous unmoored, station-keeping data buoy with enough renewable energy to power a platform full of sensors and devices capable of capturing the pure sounds of whales.

British Petroleum (BP) began using Liquid's wave gliders in the Gulf of Mexico shortly after the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill disaster:
"Initially we will be calibrating a set of nine optical sensors to monitor water quality, including trace amounts of dispersed oil, and will then add acoustic monitoring of marine mammal activity," said Roger Hine, president and CEO of Liquid Robotics. "We look forward to working with BP on this extended research program."
Data collected by the deployment was posted on a public website for all to see. News spread and oil, gas and military executives saw a fit of Liquid's gliders with their oceanographic needs. Schlumberger, an international supplier of technology, integrated project management and information solutions for the oil and gas industry, took an interest which led to their 2011 funding and 2012 joint venture with Liquid.

Conclusion: Build a Product That Satisfies a Specific Need

Colin Angle, CEO and co-founder of iRobot, has consistently held that we are going about developing the robotics industry wrong: “The idea that a humanoid robot with arms would push a vacuum cleaner is an image that has set many expectations and, in some ways, has set back the industry,” when, by just rethinking what needs to be done, we can build a product that satisfies a specific need (vacuuming), as iRobot did with their Roomba line of robotic vacuums. "I used to think that I was a self-respecting high-tech entrepreneur, but it took me becoming a vacuum cleaner salesman to actually have some success for my company, my investors and myself."

** Portions of this article have been excerpted with permission from "It takes the military to spawn robotics."

Monday, August 13, 2012

Three Different Worlds; One Big Show

By Frank Tobe, Editor/Publisher, The Robot Report

The business of unmanned aerial, underwater and ground vehicles -- originally funded by DARPA, NSF and other government-sponsored research programs -- and the many ancillary businesses involved -- has grown quickly and dramatically. Lobbying for its interests has been well-funded by defense contractors and very successful in advancing the defense side of the industry. Movies show the technologies in use: e.g., the latest Bourne movie has a Predator strike and also a drone making a pickup of materials at a specified location.

But when the focus broadens beyond military budgets, Congress often leads the way to other opportunities. The mandated integration of unmanned systems into the U.S. national airspace by 2015 has many unmanned vehicle manufacturers re-marketing their technology for civilian purposes.

Large tank showing tethered ROV with exhibition hall in background.
Underwater and ground vehicles are farther along in that process than the aerial segment. This fact is evidenced by the flurry of underwater projects, joint ventures, and acquisitions being undertaken by the oil and gas exploration and mining industries. The recent Schlumberger joint venture with Liquid Robotics is a good example. The initial purpose of the venture will be for surveillance; seep/spill detection; and communications gateway services.

It can also be seen by the steady movement toward driverless trucks and cars by Google and the auto industry and driverless tractors for agri-business. These large-scale projects involve enormous consumer revenues and are overshadowing military UGVs like bomb disposal and military truck convoys and space projects like the Mars rover Curiosity.

Mobile remote presence devices such as iRobot and InTouch Health's new RP-VITA robot are also taking root and finding multiple uses in the health care sector. iRobot is an example of a robot company diversifying into non-defense endeavors even though their basic research dollars have come from DARPA and the DoD.

As much as aerial "drones" have been in the news for their surveillance and bombing prowess, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have not made too much headway toward commercialization because they cannot, at present, fly in civilian airspace and, even if the rules were changed, they still couldn't fly without serious modifications. A recent $2,000 Research & Markets report on the prospects for the global unmanned aerial vehicle market for the next four years shows only limited growth; 4.28% CAGR through 2015.

Thus interest was high and the questions pointed and serious at the AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) North America's Conference & Show in Las Vegas this week. Five hundred fifty exhibitor companies manned the show floor and 9,000 industry attendees listened to presentations and strolled the exhibition halls.

FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta
At the keynote presentation, Michael Huerta, FAA's Acting Administrator and Leslie Cary, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICOA) Unmanned Aircraft Systems Study Group Secretary, discussed the timing, process and complexities of the Congressional mandate to provide rules, regulations and facilities which would allow unmanned aircraft into the civil airspace by September, 2015.

The consensus of the people I talked with afterwards was that both the FAA and ICAO, although they "talk the talk" of enabling the transition, are far from where they need to be to truly make it happen.
  • The FAA, which is currently understaffed and underfunded, has its hands full because they are in the process of changing their technology from 2D to 3D - an immense and complex transition - and are also searching for a new director. They have yet to mention how they plan to regulate and enforce the new rules or how they plan to underwrite and test collision avoidance and communication systems.
  • The FAA isn't the only player in the Congressional mandate and inter-agency issues are complex,  political and far-reaching. Also involved are the DoD and the FCC and the international ICAO.
  • There were many comments about ICAO's timetables which extended 10 and 20 years from now, and which certainly trails the American deadline of September, 2015. Their insistence that UASs be remotely piloted with a licensed pilot and individually certified aircraft and ground systems was thought to be too stringent. They coined the term RPAS: Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems. The one decision ICAO has made is that model aircraft will not be covered in their new rules even though these aircraft could hinder the airspace.
Because UAS technology is here to stay and will only grow in size, there are steps being taken to comply with what the industry expects the rules to be. These include setting up multiple-state UAS testing centers and establishing two new schools for unmanned flight training, one in the US and the other in Europe. These new entities will be able to customize their curricula and procedures to prepare their clients for various licensing and certification requirements once they are established by the FAA and ICAO.

Along the line of making changes that are inevitable, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) adopted guidelines for the use of unmanned aircraft systems by law enforcement agencies. The guidelines provide an outline of how to use UAS safely and responsibly and with respect to individuals’ privacy. The adoption of the IACP guidelines follows the recent adoption of AUVSI’s “Code of Conduct” for those who design, test and operate UAS.

Industry executives know they will have to change from the loose and unusually permissive regulatory situation they have had up until now. As the war in Afghanistan scales down, a portion of the industry's forward-thinking companies are focusing on commercializing their product lines and are attempting to wean themselves away from defense contracts even though there will still be a large business in the civilian first-responder marketplace.

Also, since most of the current UASs do not have the systems or maneuverability to safely fly in civilian airspace, the industry needs to enhance its products to be more robust, incorporate redundant systems, situational awareness and other collision avoidance sensors and communication systems. These are not insignificant modifications and there have been a few notable recent incidents of lost-link and mid-air collisions, including the recent clamor when a UAV lost its link and was on a direct course for Washington, DC. Present-day payload systems used in manned aircraft, although very capable, are also big and heavy. They will need to be miniaturized in order to be able to fit into the limited payload capacities of UASs.

A Few Companies Transitioning to the Civilian Marketplace

Although the robotics sub-set of the aerospace/defense industry quite large, dynamic and technologically advanced, it has not been highlighted in The Robot Report. Because of my personal bias, the opposite is true. It was with that partiality in mind when I walked the exhibition halls of AUVSI and overheard conversational fragments that included words like "war," "killing," "fear," "nervousness," etc., that I searched for companies that were making an effort to modify and market their products outside the military/defense/security sector.

Here are a few of the companies transitioning to the civilian marketplace:
Canadian start-up Eqquera UAVs
for forest fire fighting and tanker operations.
  • AeroVironment's has repurposed it's Qube portable UAV for use in public safety applications such as law enforcement and first response. The system provides a portable aerial vantage point to help public safety workers perform their duties more safely and effectively.
  • Canadian start-up Eqquera demonstrated their novel and creatively designed UASs for forest fire fighting and nuclear and arctic surveillance.
  • HDT and The Johns Hopkins University presented their MK2 robotic arm for rehab purposes and a two-armed version with significant torque and lift capabilities for general purpose shop and factory work.
  • i2Tech, one of many electronic and vision systems providers at the show, has a line of light weight, low-power, stabilized camera and thermal imaging systems for health care, industrial testing and surveillance.
  • Both Kairos Autonomy and Brock Technologies have low-cost kits which are able to convert any existing ground vehicle into an unmanned system and Autonomous Solutions just received a patent for a kit-based autonomous clip-on tethered unmanned convoy system.
  • Israel's RoboTeam's multi-purpose line of mobile tactical ground robots were described as solutions for homeland security and public safety.
  • MDL's displayed their tiny 43-gram USB-powered micro laser module for distance metering.
  • HDT, a predominately military provider, is partnering with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab to build advanced prosthetic and robotic health care prototype systems. At the show they displayed their two-armed MK-2 robot, a portable, lightweight and reasonably-priced device with high torque and lift capabilities capable of holding and using portable hand tools.
  • Many additive 3D printing systems had booths and showed how their machines were able to work with exotic metal substances and to provide specialized capabilities well beyond the MakerBot 3D printers we all know and love:
  • Finally, TOR Robotics provided a long list of civilian uses for their quad-copter that are also valid for the whole UAS industry:

This year’s AUVSI show was transitional in the sense that the majority of the exhibitor's businesses has come from governments around the world, and those governments —like the U.S. — are facing significant cuts in spending. Hence the need to step up the lobbying to keep spending high (as appears to be the case of the large aerospace conglomerates), or seek ways to modify products and transition to the commercial marketplace (as can be seen by the short list of companies described above).

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Robotic Start-up Companies - A Glimpse At Our Robotic Future

By Frank Tobe, Editor/Publisher, The Robot Report

Click to enlarge and see details.

This mash-up of our list of 159 robotic start-up companies onto Google's global map graphically displays how widespread robotic inventions and inventors are dispersed around the world and particularly around major robotic research centers. For the purpose of this mash-up, we are defining a robotic start-up as a company established to develop a concept or product or robotic-related service for sale but doesn't yet have it all together. They have established a business and are in motion toward their goals but haven't made any sales or aren't fully funded, haven't finished developing the product, or all of the preceding.

Each red marker shows the start-up company name, city and website link. This is good free publicity for start-up companies, good for job-seekers, good for the robotics industry and informative for investors and gadget freaks everywhere. Robotics is happening, and it's happening at a rapid pace all over the globe! And this mash-up is just a tiny reflection of that revolution.

Interestingly, there are very few industrial robot start-up companies; mostly the new companies are service robotic companies, a generic term for every form of robot except those used for industrial-grade manufacturing: surgical; healthcare; defense; space; security; personal service; shop assistance; unmanned aerial, underwater and ground vehicles; toys; vision enabled, etc.

These start-ups appear to be clustering in the Bay Area (Silicon Valley) of California, around Boston, Pittsburgh, Tokyo and Stockholm - all of which correspond with the locations of notable government or university-sponsored robotics research facilities, and in and around New York City. Each of those areas have ongoing entrepreneurial assistance programs for technology projects and provide nurturing and social get-togethers with prospective investors and fellow inventors and roboticists.

Many other young robotic companies have pushed beyond the start-up phase into one of our other directory categories shown below. And many more are missing because they are too stealthy to have a web or social media presence just yet or are in a language that is difficult to search and translate. Hence my personal request: if you know of a robotics start-up that isn't included on the map, please send the information to: Thank you.

Although only 159 start-up companies are plotted, The Robot Report’s database has over 1,800 robotics links separated into the following categories:
... Industrial robot manufacturers
... Service robots for governmental and corporate use
... Service robots for personal use
... Ancillary businesses serving the robotics industry
... Start-up companies
... Educational and research facilities
Later this year we will be producing another mash-up from our database. Red markers will show the industrial robot makers, blue markers will show where service robotics companies are located, and green will be for start-up companies. Stay tuned! This one should be particularly illuminating.

Monday, August 6, 2012

GA Tech's Extensive Robotics Program

By Frank Tobe, Editor/Publisher, The Robot Report

The Georgia Institute of Technology lays on a beautiful 400 acre campus and is a university committed to improving the human condition through advanced science and technology. It also has campuses in France, Singapore, Shanghai, Peking, Costa Rica and Ireland. With a US faculty of 1,100, a support staff of 4,500, and 21,000 students - of which 4,000 are foreign students - GA Tech ranks #7 in the nation for best public universities (U.S. News & World Report) and #1 for manufacturing research. 55% of GA Tech revenue comes from research dollars; only 20% from tuition. NOTE: Most of the foreign students are Asian and from China and also that GA Tech's foreign student population is 220% higher than any other university in Georgia .
The Obama Administration's PCAST (President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology) recently released its plan to produce 1 million additional college graduates with degrees in STEM this decade. This follows another plan to train 100,000 science and math teachers by 2020. Noble goals, but suffering in the budget approval process, with the outcome unknown. Yet the problem is real and topical:
  • 80% of jobs in the next decade will require math and science skills (NSF)
  • Only 15% of American students will graduate with STEM degrees (US Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • Jobs involving robotics feature real-world challenges solved by research, critical thinking, construction, teamwork, and imagination (US FIRST)
The business of robotics in America (and around the world) centers around the universities that teach the subject and provide the research and resources. Clusters of spin-off businesses, investors and consultants flourish nearby and add commercial and entrepreneurial energy to the mix. Pittsburgh, Boston, the Bay Area (San Francisco and the Silicon Valley), and Atlanta are the major clusters in America and there are plenty of governmental, institutional, angel and venture capital entities and individuals with ties into those areas. 

I've been fortunate to have visited all of these major technology campuses which are at the center of these clusters: Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Harvard, Stanford, UC Berkeley and Georgia Tech. My most recent trip was to a DARPA presentation at GA Tech

Aerial view of GA Tech with downtown Atlanta in the background.
Georgia Tech focuses on practical innovation for society and industry - or as they say, GA Tech is all about creating value - and this can be seen in more than a dozen focused labs crossing three departmental boundaries: The College of Computing, College of Engineering and the Georgia Tech Research Institute**, all of which feed faculty, researchers, research funding and students into the business side of robotics.
  • mechatronics
  • agricultural technology
  • biomedical imaging, neuro-engineering and bio-robotics
  • perception and vision systems
  • construction and architecture
  • health care and medical robotics
  • human-robot interaction
  • embedded systems
  • mobility and navigation systems
  • unmanned aerial, underwater and ground vehicles
  • simulation
Henrik Christensen is the director of Georgia Tech's Robotics and Intelligent Machines Center and a Distinguished Professor of Computing. Christensen holds the KUKA Chair in Robotics. He was the founding chairman of the EU network of excellence in robotics - EURON (1999-2006), and remains a science advisor to the European Commission, as well as several international companies.

Christensen says of GA Tech's track record in robotics:
GT has a very active incubator for creation of new companies. More than 340 companies have been spun-out and we have a new educational program to mentor students and faculty to easily spin-out companies. In terms of robotics and perception there has been a number of successes. DVT – by a retired GA Tech professor – was sold to Cognex a few years ago for $140 million and we have several other companies such as ShapeStart, Guided Systems, CAMotion, Qcept, … that have been successfully spun-out. On the average 2-3 robotics related companies are created every year. So overall the climate is very stimulating for creation of spin-off companies. We have ATDC as the incubator for new companies, EI² is our enterprise innovation institute and finally MEP is the manufacturing extension partnership for working with local companies.

One of Henrik's principle tasks since his arrival at GA Tech has been in the development, dissemination and followup of a U.S. Roadmap for Robotics which has been gaining momentum since its initial presentation to Congress in 2009. Portions of that roadmap were included in President Obama's AMP Initiative (Advanced Manufacturing Partnership). $70 million was allocated to focus on enabling new abilities for factory workers, health care providers, soldiers, surgeons and astronauts to carry out key hard-to-do tasks with co-robots... small, safe, easily trainable and flexible lightweight helper robots.

As an interesting aside, the Danish Technological Institute (DTI), a government-sponsored stimulus program to develop and apply robot technologies to Danish industry and society, has established a US subsidiary located in the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) to search for and coordinate research projects and start-ups beneficial to Danish interests and using the full research resources of GA Tech. Their goal for their new US subsidiary is for it to become the equivalent of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), but of and for Danish robotic interests.

[** The GA Tech Research Institute (GTRI) is the applied research arm of GA Tech and received $300 million in research funding last year alone. It has 1,600 employees of which 795 are faculty at GA Tech.]