Sunday, March 24, 2013

Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Robotic Start-up Companies

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

Fort Mason, San Francisco. Host to the Engadget Expand event held last weekend.
FormLabs' Form 1 $3,300 hi-res 3D printer.
At last weekend's Engadget Expand event in Fort Mason, San Francisco, Kickstarter's co-founder Yancey Strickler started off the show with a presentation of many of Kickstarter's crowd-funding success stories. 17 projects raised $1 million+ in 2012 including Pebble, the customizable watch, Oculus Rift, a  virtual reality headset for video games, SmartThings, a platform and hub that connect household things to the Internet and your smartphone, and Form 1, an affordable plug and play high-res 3D printer. [As an aside, Stanford now teaches a for-credit course on Kickstarter.]

Outside the area where the talks were held were a series of show booths including a group of booths under rival crowd funder Indiegogo's banner. The East Coast / West Coast rivalry between Kickstarter and Indiegogo appears to be good for start-ups and for each company, and it is certainly colorful -- just talk to anybody from Kickstarter about Indiegogo or vice versa. Indiegogo has been pushing globally, incorporating new languages, currencies and localized homepages to encourage foreign investors and campaigns -- and has seen a 20% increase in international activity in recent months. Kickstarter is playing catch-up but definitely moving internationally. All this, plus the New York City versus San Francisco and Silicon Valley competitiveness, makes for a lively rivalry.
The East Coast tech boom, really the New York City tech boom, is very real and growing. 127 start-ups happened in NYC in 2012 - three of which were robotics-related (Falkor Systems, DreamBots, and Robotic Systems & Technologies) and four more nearby (see The Robot Report's Global Map and filter for Start-ups) - showing the vitality of NYC and also that there are serious alternatives to Silicon Valley in terms of software development, technology and entrepreneurship.
Many of the robotics-related start-ups on Kickstarter and Indiegogo fall into two categories: (1) funding for school teams and contests, theater/film/documentary/video/web projects, little gimmicks, gadgets and toys (which call themselves robotic but... it's a stretch), and (2) everything else. A sampling of the eclectic second group includes RoboBrrd, a robotics DIY kit, DiveBot, an ROV with HD cameras, Dragonfly, a GA Tech spin-off hit which raised over $1 million in two days, and RepRapPro Huxley, a new 3D printer which can print all the parts to make... another RepRapPro Huxley.

Certainly this form of crowd-funding is good for some aspects of robotics. But I fear that much time, new-investor enthusiasm, and money are wasted on gimmicks and gadgets that are out of date within a season and have no real follow-up business plan. Further, because crowd funding, like TED Talks, is fun in and of itself, there is a challenge to present, share and seek recognition, an ego-building adventure in addition to the original goal of seeking money for product development.

I understand that from games and toys often comes familiarity, growing awareness and job applicants, but I wonder if a few more successful robotic products like iRobot, Intuitive SurgicalKiva Systems and Liquid Robotics would have the same effect or better effect. This is the theory espoused by Colin Angle, iRobot's CEO, who has said:
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.
Also see my other article about robotics at the Engadget Expand event.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Updated Robotics Roadmap Presented to US Congress


Henrik Christensen, the KUKA Chair of Robotics at GA Tech and Chairman of the Roadmap project, Rodney Brooks, CEO of Rethink Robotics, Pete Wurman, CTO of Kiva Systems, and Russ Angold, CTO of Ekso Bionics all presented the new Roadmap to a packed gallery of the Robotics Caucus of the US Congress.

From left: Pete Wurman, Rodney Brooks, Russ Angold and Henrik Christensen

The Roadmap pdf is a must read and can be downloaded here.

The Roadmap and presentation covered six areas of robotics:
  1. Manufacturing - manufacturing represents 14% of the GDP and 11% of total employment. Close to 70% of net exports from the US are related to manufacturing. Thus manufacturing and robots are a very important area to the general economic health of the country.
  2. Medical Robots - with 40+% annual growth over the last few years in the number of medical procedures performed using robots, it is essential to continue to develop and deploy robot systems and to reduce the overall cost of care.
  3. Healthcare - finding cost-effective robotic solutions for rehabilitation and necessary household and personal tasks for the more than 11 million Americans living with severe disabilities.
  4. Service - annual growth in professional service robots (which includes inspection of power plants and infrastructure such as bridges and transmission lines) is 30%, and in domestic service applications (such as vacuums, lawnmowers and toys), the growth rate is 20%. US companies have dominated this area and it is considered economically important to maintain the momentum.
  5. Space - tremendous progress in science exploration of Mars and at the space station through the use of robotics has offered important insights into how the same systems can be used in daily lives. Partnerships such as with NASA's Robonaut team and GM, and enhanced teleoperation and remote presence consulting are examples.
  6. Defense - more than 25,000 robotic systems were deployed in ground and aerial systems in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dual use opportunities are tremendous as the FAA opens civilian airspace to these types of robotic devices. In a decade, airfreight may be transported coast-to-coast or transoceanic by remotely piloted aircrafts. This is another area where US companies have dominated and it is considered important to maintain the momentum.
While some critical capabilities and underlying technologies are domain-specific, a number are common across all six areas of robotics and include robust 3-D perception, planning and navigation, human-like dexterous manipulation, intuitive human-robot interaction, and safe robot behavior. These challenges are where the Roadmap suggests that the government stimulate development by investing in the core sciences from which the solutions will emerge.

Henrik also said about the presentation:
Robotics is one of a few technologies capable of building new companies, creating new jobs and addressing a number of issues of national importance. We hope this report will help foster the discussion on how we can build partnerships and allocate resources to move the robotics industry forward.
We had multiple members from NSF at the briefing. In DC, the program managers that work in areas related to robotics now meet regularly to discuss programs, potential future opportunities... so we are seeing a growing interest and a stronger representation in Congress and the DC community.
Good work Henrik and Bravo! for getting on so well in the Halls of Congress.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Chris Anderson; Marc Raibert and Steven Cousins at Engadget Expand Event

"Moore's Law has never moved faster than is moving inside the phone you've already got in your pocket. The pace of development and the price performance curve is moving faster in smartphones than it's ever moved in history and we're taking advantage by drafting off this momentum and by employing military-grade technologies at toy prices," said Chris Anderson at last weekend's Engadget Expand event at Fort Mason, San Francisco.

The military has deployed 7,500 aerial drones; Chris Anderson's company, DIY Drones, has got 40,000. Every sort of copter and plane, as shown on the diagram below, is included in the universal autopilot chipset that DIY Drones sells (for $129). And this chip also includes features like geofencing, follow me, and fly by wire.


His presentation is well worth watching particularly when he discusses how drones can be used for precision agriculture right now, today:


Chris was just part of a really interesting 3-person panel where the other two presenters were Marc Raibert from Boston Dynamics and Steven Cousins from Willow Garage. Marc Raibert is CEO of Boston Dynamics (of Big Dog and Cheeta fame) and described how and why Boston Dynamics builds robots designed to work in rough terrain. He emphasized what Chris said earlier, that military grade technology was moving to the robotics industry at toy prices subsidized by DARPA and smartphone buyers.

Amongst other interesting things in his presentation, Willow Garage CEO Steven Cousins also answered the question about what is going to happen at Willow Garage now that the funding has stopped.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Which companies provide robotic systems to the military?

Elbit Systems' unique VIPeR Robot
My friends at Robohub.org are running a week-long series of focused stories about robotics for defense, security and surveillance purposes. In an attempt to add to the conversation, here is a list of some of the companies that produce these types of robotic devices. This list is comprised of publicly-traded stocks in various stock exchanges in America, Canada and Europe. There are many more --privately-held companies -- not included in this posting because of time constraints.
  • AAR Corp (AIR:NYSE) - a diversified provider of products and services to the worldwide aviation and government and defense markets. Is developing unmanned aerial refueling and other UAV systems. 
  • API Technologies (ATNY:NASDAQ) - Provides UAVs, aiming systems and secure communications products to defense and industry.
  • AeroVironment (AVAV:NASDAQ) - designs, develops, produces and supports a portfolio of unmanned aircraft systems. 
  • BAE Systems (BA/:LON) - a UK-based global defense provider with a marine and unmanned aerial vehicle division.
  • CAE Inc (CAE:TSE) - a Canadian company that provides pilot simulation and modeling to the civil aviation and defense forces worldwide.
  • Dassault Aviation (AM:FP) - a French aircraft manufacturer which also makes UAVs and other systems and components for UAVs for the military.
  • Elbit Systems Ltd (ESLT:NASDAQ) - an Israeli-based international defense and electronics company with a line of unmanned land, naval and aerial systems.
  • European Aeronautic Defense and Space (EADS:IX) - an aerospace conglomerate with a group providing robotic space vehicles, UAVs and UA Copters.
  • Exponent, Inc. (EXPO:NASDAQ) - a science and engineering consulting firm that designs UAV communications and complete systems. 
  • Finmeccanica Spa (FINMF:PINK) - an Italian military/aerospace conglomerate with a series of unmanned robotic surveillance devices.
  • FLIR Systems, Inc. (FLIR:NASDAQ) - a designer, manufacturer and marketer of thermal imaging systems. 
  • General Dynamics (GD:NYSE) - an aerospace defense conglomerate with a Robotics Systems line of products. 
  • Honeywell International (HON:NYSE) - a diversified technology and manufacturing company that makes accelerometers, MAVs and force sensors.
  • Inrob Tech, Ltd. (IRBL:PINK) - an Israeli provider of engineering and services to the military for UVRs.
  • iRobot Corp (IRBT:NASDAQ) - Packbots, SUGVs, Warriors and Seagliders from iRobot's Defense & Security division.
  • ITT Exelis (XLS:NYSE) - a provider of command, control, UAV communications and other secure systems to the military.
  • L3 Communications (LLL:NYSE) - Has an Unmanned Systems division and manufactures small UAS and component parts and secure communications systems.
  • Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT:NYSE) - an aerospace and security conglomerate with a full range of unmanned aerial and underwater products as well as exoskeletons and other robotic systems.
  • MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) (MDA:TSE) - a Canadian provider of secure communications systems including space and unmanned robotics systems and UAVs.
  • Moog Inc. (MOG.A:NYSE) - a designer, manufacturer and integrator of precision motion control systems and sensors for aerospace and defense.
  • Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC:NYSE) - provides products, services and integrated solutions in aerospace and defense. Unmanned aerial, underwater and land vehicles as well as bomb disposal robots are just a part of a wide range of robotic products and services.
  • QinetiQ Group PLC (QQ/:LON) - a UK-based science and technology research company working closely with the British Government for defense research. Makes competing robotics products to iRobot.
  • Raytheon Company (RTN:NYSE) - a technology company specializing in defense, homeland security and other government markets. Robot snakes, arms and exoskeletons and an unmanned aircraft systems framework are just a few of their robotic products.
  • Rockwell Collins (COL:NYSE) - a provider of optics, navigation and guidance systems and controls for unmanned military vehicles of all types.
  • Teledyne Technologies Inc (TDY:NYSE) - provides electronic subsystems, instrumentation and digital imaging for marine and environmental applications for aerospace and defense systems.
  • Textron Inc. (TXT:NYSE) - UAVs and unmanned copters and systems integration of different vendor's robots and devices.
  • Thales Group (THLEF:PINK) - a French military conglomerate that produces camcopters and other UAVs as well as their secure communications systems.
  • The Boeing Company (BA:NYSE) - an aerospace company with a defense and security division that makes UAVS and support systems.
  • United Technologies (NYSE:UTX) - an aerospace conglomerate that produces autopilot systems for UAVs.
In 2010 I wrote an op-ed piece about the military/industrial complex and quoted from a Time Magazine series of articles about Pres. Dwight Eisenhower -- who became famous for this quote:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
The Eisenhower quote, and what I wrote in 2010, are just as appropriate today as we sit on the cusp of allowing potential spy drones into our civilian airspace along with all the good that commercial aerial robots can also provide. It was in 2009 that Hong Kong police began arresting burglars who were casing prospective condos to rob by sending camera-studded aerial drones up to the windows for a look-see.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Disruptive Robotics


By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

Catherine Mohr and her da Vinci Surgical System.
On February 1st of this year, Catherine Mohr, Director of Medical Research and chief spokesperson for Intuitive Surgical (ISRG:NASDAQ), gave a talk on the campus of CMU. (Video of talk and Q&A).

I watched the video wherein Mohr pointed out that most of the new robotic-assisted surgical procedures - including those provided by her company's da Vinci Surgical System, are simply improved versions of surgeries that have long been done through open or laparoscopic access -- and that's not disruptive. She felt that new technologies are poised to profoundly disrupt the field of surgery... new methods to enable the body's own immune system to fight off problems, or new systems to enable doctors to implant medicines in just the right spot to fight a disease without corrupting other nearby organs.

Aeon Scientific's magnetic catheter steering system.
Last week I had the good fortune to visit the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems (IRIS) Labs at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, Switzerland. I saw some products in their final stages of development which fit the disruptive aspect of what Mohr was talking about. The ETH IRIS lab, headed by Professor Bradley Nelson, and his team of 40 researchers, Masters and PhD students, and postdocs, amongst it's many projects, is in the process of spinning-off a medical device company developing a new type of robotic catheter steering system using patented technology for electromagnetic manipulation.

Nelson, who heads the team at the lab, is also a founder and member of the Board of Directors of Aeon Scientific. Aeon's magnetic catheter steering system is initially set up to support electrophysiologists during catheter ablation procedures for the treatment of arrhythmias, such as atrial fibrillation. It allows them to move the ablation catheter within the heart of the patient with magnetic fields. The improved control leads to better outcomes and reduced treatment costs.

Note little rectangle in image of eye retina. That's what gets moved by magnetic steering device on left.
Aeon's new technology is a platform with the potential for other medical applications such as gastroenterology, neurosurgery, ophthalmics, and targeted drug delivery. I saw an example of the targeted drug delivery as it related to ophthalmics - moving a micron-sized object placed into the retina of an eye. The steering system - the magnetic coils and lens system on the left (a miniature of the fully-sculpted one shown in the human-sized cardiac system shown above), and a computer station for the doctor to steer the little micron-sized rectangle you can see in the center of the photo on the right, to the exact right spot for it to deliver it's therapeutic medicine, comprise the medicine delivery system.

This is exactly what Catherine Mohr was talking about: delivering medicine to the exact right spot so that it can safely do it's job.