Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A glimpse at our robotic future: 235 start-ups reviewed

[This article first appeared on pages 191-198 in "World Robotics Service Robots 2013" published by the IFR (International Federation of Robotics) Statistical Department. Copies of that book and its companion "World Industrial Robotics 2013" both of which can be purchased here. It is reprinted with permission from the publisher.]

By Frank Tobe, Editor, The Robot Report

Robotic start-up companies range from the whimsical to the amazing, from futuristic to topical, and from hubs of robotic activity in Silicon Valley, Boston, New York City (a new hub) and Switzerland to far-off places around the world: Turkey, Tel Aviv, Moscow, Christchurch, Reykjavik, Singapore, Shenzhen, Buenos Aires -- essentially, everywhere that programmers program and engineers tinker.

Some start-ups have proven concepts, achieved adequate funding and have begun to provide unique solutions to long-term problems needing robotic assistance, e.g.:

Ekso Bionics' exoskeleton, Xenex Healthcare Services' room disinfection robot, VGo's VGo, Giraff Technologies' Giraff.
Photos from manufacturers websites.
  • In healthcare, Ekso Bionics (a spin-off from UC Berkeley and 6-year old Berkeley Bionics) and their exoskeleton are beginning to penetrate rehabilitation therapy centers while a 2008 start-up, Xenex Healthcare Services' room disinfection robot is helping to disinfect ICU's and hospital surgeries everywhere.
  • In remote-presence healthcare, 6-year old VGo Communications and their VGo mobile robots have begun to focus on outpatient and remote-presence communications especially for pediatric care, while 2009 American transplant to Sweden Giraff Technologies is shipping their mobile robots as nursing home assistants.
Liquid Robotics Wave Glider, Platypus' raft, tugs by Aethon, RobCab AB and Seegrid.
Photos from manufacturers websites.
  • In underwater exploration, Liquid Robotics, a 2005 start-up focused on recording whale songs has transitioned into their very popular and successful multi-purpose wave gliders used in oil platform monitoring, for naval security, and tracking hazardous materials, while CMU 2012 spin-off Platypus LLC autonomous airboats are being evaluated by public and private agencies for river and reservoir water analysis.
  • In materials handling, as companies begin again to invest in upgrading their material handling hardware and systems after the economic crisis, Aethon (a 2005 VC funded project) and their hospital tugs, 2010-Swedish start-up RobCab AB and their multi-purpose tugs, and 2003-founded Seegrid and their warehouse trucks and tugs are all benefiting. 
4moms Mamaroo robotic baby rocker, Orbotix's Sphero and Romotive's Romo.
Photos from manufacturers websites.
  • In consumer products, toys and gadgets, 4moms (an 8-year old start-up) and their line of baby devices is a huge success story, particularly their robotic baby rocker named Mamaroo, Sphero, the robot ball, by Orbotix, is also doing quite well, and 2009 start-up Romotive's $149 Romo is selling thousands of their cute little iPhone-carrying devices.
  • In artificial intelligence, 2010 start-up Universal Robotics and their Neocortex spatial vision software are now selling sensor-based machine learning devices for automated pick and place, high-end 3D inspection and de-palleting operations while 2012 Willow Garage spin-off Industrial Perception's similar 3D vision-guided technology is in trials for truck loading and unloading applications. Both have made serious AI inroads into random 3D spatial loading and unloading methodology.
  • In agriculture, 2012 Stanford VC start-up Blue River Technologies and their lettuce thinning system, 2009 Spanish start-up Agrobot and their strawberry picking robot, 2012 start-up Autonomous Tractor and their cab-less farm tractor, and 2009 French start-up Wall-Ye and their vineyard robot are all VC funded, in testing mode and look quite promising while 2009 start-up Harvest Automation recently finished their beta testing and have begun to sell their speedy little plant-moving robots.
  • In unmanned aerial systems, to mention just a few of the many start-ups, CyPhy Works and their unique tethered infrastructure inspection UAS, Canadian Precision Hawk (previously Winehawk Labs) and their survey UAVs and Swiss SenseFly (recently acquired by Parrot) and theirs surveying and 3D mapping are all showing future apps likely to penetrate the commercial marketplace for UAS.
  • For small niche robotic markets, CandyCam and their event camera systems, and QBotix and their solar panel positioning robots are both doing well.
  • Stealth companies like Redwood Robotics may be building a competing product to Rethink Robotics' Baxter robot. TerrAvion may be working on an aerial system for agriculture and Vishwa Robotics is working on a wide range of classified projects.
Momentum Machines' hamburger maker, Zen Robotics' trash sorter, Puzzlebox's mind-controlled quadcopter.
Photos from manufacturers websites.
Robotic projects often get funded for strange reasons. Many are at the whim (in scientific circles they call it "inspiration") of researchers attempting to conquer an interesting scientific challenge.  This often translates into commercial projects just to get the funding to continue to do research. Many crowd-funded projects fit into this latter category. Others are funded to solve specific as-yet-undiscovered methods of doing something that needs to be done. The space and defense programs (NASA and DARPA) are perfect examples of the latter and are referred to as "strategic funding" and there's a whole industry of technology transfer to make their inventions into commercial ventures.

TechJect's Dragonfly and FormLabs' 3D printer.
Photos from manufacturers websites.
In the last few years, the influence of crowd-funding is shaking things up and can be seen in some of the start-ups cited above. Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Angel List have all had their robotic hits - some even raising millions. TechJect's Dragonfly is an example. The spin-off from GA Tech raised over $1 million on Indiegogo! 3D printer start-ups also did quite well and FormLabs' Kickstarter campaign was a record-breaking $2,945,000 from 2,068 backers (FormLabs was only seeking $100,000)!

Crowd funding may be a passing fad, but for the last couple of years these types of sites have provided start-ups with a quick sense of whether their idea will sell to the public or not -- and they don't require giving away equity. Crowd funded projects also pop up on the radar of venture capitalists searching for interesting new ventures. There is no doubt that slick marketing and performance videos do well in that environment. Also, equity crowd funding is coming; the Securities and Exchange Commission is working on the rules.

Crowd funding supporters believe the process helps entrepreneurs become profitable while rewarding investors; others are concerned about online fraud and bad investments stimulated by lively videos focused toward inexperienced investors.

Nevertheless, crowd funding is here to stay and will soon include equity as a perk of investing. Further, it is spreading globally. Although robot start-ups and other long-lead projects don't get as much attention as some of the other projects, the number of robotics-related crowd funded projects is up and the sophistication of the presentations is also up - both a boon to getting the attention of serious equity investors (VC's and hedge funds).

Finally, a review of the makeup and geography of 235 start-up companies can be seen in the chart below. Robotic start-up companies are privately held robotic companies established to develop a concept or product or robotic-related service for sale but don't yet have it all together. From the chart below one can see that few are attempting to become industrial robotic manufacturers; instead, most are offering service robotic solutions for industry, home use, health care and academia.
Industrial = industrial robot makers;  
Service with an "S" = service robots used by corporations and governments. A service robot is a robot which operates semi- or fully autonomously to perform services useful to the well-being of humans and equipment, excluding industrial automation applications. They are capable of making decisions and acting autonomously in real and unpredictable environments to accomplish determined commercial tasks and are usually operated by a trained operator. Defense, rescue and security applications account for many of the start-ups. Unmanned aerial, mobile and underwater vehicles are included in this category. Field robots (mainly milking robots), cleaning robots, construction and demolition robots, laboratory, medical, rehabilitation, and surgical robots, and mobile robot platforms for general and small business use are also included as are logistic systems, inspection systems and educational and public relations robots;  
Service with a "P" = Personal service robots include vacuum cleaning and lawn-mowing robots, elder care and medical companions, entertainment and leisure robots, including toy robots, hobby systems, home education and training robots, and some remote-presence systems. Personal service robots are usually operated by a lay person;  
Ancillary = refers to businesses that provide robotic-related products or services such as software developers, autopilot providers, vision system providers, integrators, resellers, design firms, etc.; and 
Stealth = indicates robotics-related but specifics unknown because companies don't yet have a web or social presence or are in a language that is difficult to search and translate.  
[Please send start-up companies that we have missed or are new to]

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Little known uses for robots

By Frank Tobe, editor/publisher, The Robot Report

Explosives Handling

Source: Dreamstime Stock Photos.
A Chinese firm specializing in explosives manufacturing has decided to upgrade over 100 installations with parallel handling robots from Adept Technology. In a similar vein, iRobot just won a $30 million contract from the U.S. Army for robotic systems to be used for bomb disposal and other dangerous handling missions by troops and first responders.

Paint Stripping

Rendering of robots lasering paint removal from plane. Source: CTC.
Paint stripping of air force jets by robot arms gripping lasers. "Automated laser de-coating is expected to significantly reduce labor, waste, environmental risk and overall cost," said the project manager of a joint effort between CMU's NREC, the US Air Force and CTC. The laser coating remover uses a continuous wave laser to strip paint and other coatings; it replaces the traditional abrasives or chemical paint removers which generate significant hazardous wastes and air emissions.

Concrete Checking

Click to see EPRI and NY Power Authority video of robot crawler climbing dam face with echo sounding sensor. Source: EPRI
A new crawler robot developed by the EPRI (Electric Power Industry Institute) climbs up vertical surfaces and inspects, analyzes, cleans and paints. The robot is perfect for places with difficult accessibility like the face and walls of a large dam or particularly hazardous places like nuclear facilities.

Vehicle Vault and Robotic Parking

Source: RoboVault brochure.
Vehicle vaults for secure storage of valuable vehicles and robot parking systems: the RoboVault system accepts and then transports the vehicle to a controlled storage area. When it is time to retrieve the vehicle, the process is repeated in reverse. Robotic Parking Systems has robotic parking installations from Florida to Dubai, and from Abu Dhabi to Hoboken, NJ.

Just Plain Wacky

A Brooklyn-based robot artist uses his creatures for various purposes. His latest production is as a choir and musician for a performance in a church. Chico MacMurtrie is his name and his website is Amorphic Robot Works. The NY Times did an in-depth story with lots of pics. A 2012 youTube video about the artist's New Year's Eve party suggests how it might sound.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Adept Technologies: Ready to be acquired?

Adept Technologies (NASDAQ:ADEP) has been in the financial news for months. First because of poor financial showings; then because of a management shakeup; and recently because the "turnaround plan" has worked well enough that shareholders are bidding the stock up to new highs.

In 2010 Adept Technologies acquired MobileRobots and began a process of professionalizing their mobile robots to Adept's and their customer's standards -- a process that culminated in 2012.

But by 2012 Adept's earnings were negative and sales were going down. There were layoffs and shifts in people and activities. This lead to a board- and VC-mandated restructuring plan which sent out Rob Cain as an advisor/consultant to develop that plan.

In early 2013 the results were that the CEO was replaced by Cain and the company instituted a series of actions to become profitable. But when this happened there were many rumors and blog reports that the company was to be sold off for it's patents, customer list and facilities. Others suggested that it was going into bankruptcy.

Last week, the most recent quarterly earnings report came out and it showed that three things happened: (1) the big losses were quelled - the company broke even; (2) clients were buying Adepts products; and (3) the company was focusing on reducing costs, increasing sales and quality. One analyst reported: "While the June 2013 quarter represents a tentative improvement, it shows demand for Adept’s robots is returning and the company has a much lower cost structure than one year earlier."

The stock rallied to close at $5.90 - an increase of 126% year-to-date yet the market cap is just $64 million. A small price for a good company.

This may be the perfect time for Adept to be acquired. All the big contract manufacturers are buying robots and creating internal robot operations. Foxconn has even set up its own Foxbot line of robots. Flextronics (NASDAQ:FLEX), Foxconn (TPE:2354), Jabil (NYSE:JBL), Celestica (TSE:CLS), New Kinpo, Plexus (NASDAQ:PLXS) and Benchmark (NYSE:BHE) are perfect candidates.

We'll just have to wait and see.