Sunday, October 27, 2013

Beaming-in to RoboBusiness 2013

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

Remote visitors drive Beam robots to chat (and share a laugh) with exhibitors. Photos courtesy of Suitable Technologies, Inc.
RoboBusiness 2013, held last week at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Silicon Valley, was revitalized from previous RoboBusiness events. Throughout the three day event, it was easy to see renewed energy, attentiveness and excitement for the broad business of robotics. It was easy to see that EH Publishing, the producer of the event, had invested heavily in making the show the success that it was.

Suitable Technologies Beam Remote Presence Robots

Two very visible things struck me as indicative of why the show was packed with enthusiastic exhibitors and attendees. One was the use of Beam remote-presence robots on the exhibition floor. Palo Alto start-up Suitable Technologies brought two dozen Beam robots to the show and rented them by the hour to people calling in from around the world. They worked flawlessly, moved freely and accident-free, carried on conversations with passersby and exhibitors - a perfect solution for those who couldn't physically come and experience the trade show portion of RoboBusiness. There was even a Beam Hour where the show floor was closed to all except exhibitors and Beam attendees. A high-tech solution to broaden the high-tech audience of RoboBusiness.

Unbounded Robotics UBR-1 Mobile Robot

The other was Unbounded Robotics and their new UBR-1 one-armed mobile robot. Built by many of the same team that built Willow Garage's two-armed robot PR2 - a robot that launched and sold for $400,000 in 2009, the new $35,000 UBR-1 is as capable as the older PR2 but it is now affordable whereas very few could pay for the PR2. This price drop phenomena was talked about by speakers and in private conversations. Words like "plug and play," "convergence" and "confluence" were used to describe it." "In just five years -- from $400,000 to $35,000! Amazing."

The UBR-1 appears to have encapsulated for all to see a major trend happening in robotics over the last five years: sensors, cameras, batteries and other component costs have been and continue to drop dramatically and, combined with mobility and ever-more-powerful CPUs, those lower costs are enabling cheaper more capable robots -- such as Unbounded's UBR-1.


With 2D and 3D sensors, scanners and cameras, more capable lighter and smaller batteries, and all the other functionality developed and incorporated in ROS and the PR2, Unbounded Robotics will begin shipping UBR-1 units next summer. First units will go to academia but shortly thereafter commercial versions will begin shipping to companies for various mobility tasks such as machine tending and material transport. After that, Melonee Wise, CEO, suggested additional application areas being developed for the hospitality business - mobility tasks like room service delivery and after-room-cleaning inspection. Other applications could include restocking shelves and, with the proper software, limited eldercare. The new UBRs will be manufactured and assembled in Silicon Valley. Unbounded is in the process of closing their "A" round of funding.

Invest, Innovate, Implement

"Invest, Innovate, Implement" was the theme for RoboBusiness 2013 and it was carried throughout with extensive speakers, panels and workshops. Funding methods and understanding what VCs think and want were a big part of the show. It started with a 3-hour workshop sponsored by Grishin Robotics, the start-up funding entity of the Russian VC Dmitry Grishin. It was followed by an evening session where a group of start-ups presented their elevator pitches in front of four venture capitalists. There was also a breakout session with VCs discussing today's investment trends and how they view them in relation to investing.

ROS-Industrial

As costs come down and component systems become more capable, many companies are moving to add advanced vision and perception systems, path and grasp planning, and networking capabilities to their existing robots. One way to accomplish this is by having a ROS-Industrial front end - a common open-source language familiar to most engineering and robotics students - where one can design and simulate cross-platform vision systems and other additions before implementing them. ROS-Industrial, a non-profit open source robotics operating system organization, provides a common framework for robotics applications and is proving to be a good resource for rapid development of new components and uses for existing robots.

Google's Self-Driving Cars

Google's Chris Urmson, Director, Self-Driving Cars, a keynote speaker, showed not only the history but the complexity of the process of robotic self-driving cars. There's a whole lot going on as a Google car moves along it's path.


Notice the red circle in the left top picture. With 360º vision provided by the scanner, the car has to process every type of information, everywhere, including behind and around corners. In the top right picture, there are lights, pedestrians, lane markings, etc., all identified and color coded and tracked by the onboard computers. When maps are available, comparisons to what the car is seeing versus what the map says is there is another input to the massive data processing - 1 GB of data every second - that occurs thousands of times every second.

RoboBusiness 2013 had over 500 attendees and 60 exhibitors. Next year's show will be held in Boston.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Robo-Stox: A Dream Come True

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

Throughout my 35-year career in the computer business, I always read and thought about what disruptive technology was ahead. When I had an IBM mainframe, I was looking at the DEC mini-computers and even the stand-alone word-processors to see if they could do my work without the humongous monthly lease rates and $250,000 computer room (with its special flooring, power supply and air conditioners) that I was paying for at the time.

When the digital era began I had already guided my company into the software business and had transitioned from its mainframe to big PCs. Shortly after that I sold out and started to change my lifestyle to be less tense and more healthy.

My interest in the next big thing, however, was undiminished. I began to read about robotics. As I set about learning about the industry and those involved, I called my stock broker and asked for a basket of robotics-related stocks that I could invest in for my retirement. He gave me two - which I thought curious. I called another broker and got the same answer. Then I checked Bloomberg and found that they too, at that time, didn't have a category for robotics nor did they have a list of robot makers.

That's when I decided to put my research and database skills to work compiling a comprehensive list of publicly-traded and privately-held companies involved in the robotics industry. I quickly found that this was truely a global project. Most of the industrial robot producers were international and the newer service robot providers were mostly privately held and not publicly traded. Since my goal was to be a passive investor, this posed a problem.

As I continued my quest to create the most comprehensive database of robotic providers and ancillary businesses, I was approached by people that wanted to buy or rent my list. I declined all such requests until some financial people approached me about selling my trademark on the term Robo-stox and being able to use my database to set up an industry tracking index, the first use of which was to establish an Exchange Traded Fund (an ETF) reflecting the robotics industry.

We worked together to form a company (ROBO-STOX LLC) and set out to develop an index of the robotics industry. We evaluated all of the robotics companies in my database and culled that list down to a set of 77 stocks, which, when back-tested over 10 years, truly reflected the growth pattern of the industry.


ROBO-STOX LLC has licensed its index to Exchange Traded Concepts who, on October 22, 2013, launched an exchange traded fund (ETF) with the ticker code ROBO. Now anyone with the ability to buy stock anywhere in the world can buy this publicly-traded NASDAQ ETF.

I've worked a long time to make this happen and I'm very pleased with the results. It enables investors everywhere to capitalize on the accelerating worldwide growth in robotics. And it lets me do what I originally wanted: passively invest in what I believe to be a continuingly profitable industry, the robotics industry.




Saturday, October 19, 2013

Selected Start-ups from Demo Fall 2013, Silicon Valley

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report


DEMO describes itself as the launchpad for emerging technology and trends. The DEMO Fall 2013 Conference was produced by IDG, the publishing giant of Computerworld, PC World, MacWorld, etc. I went to see the 40 start-ups presenting their new products and apps, searching for anything robotic, and interested in everything else that might be trendsetting. Videos of all 40 presentations can be seen here.

Erick Schonfeld, the Executive Producer of DEMO, prepped us that this DEMO show would reflect five big trends:
  1. Mobile is the interface to the real world
  2. Cloudware is getting serious
  3. Control your data and you can control your health
  4. These aren't your dad's productivity apps
  5. Hardware is the new software
The format for DEMO was that each of the start-up companies would get four minutes to present and demonstrate their idea and outline their business plan. Start-up presentations were grouped by the five categories shown above. A panel of three experienced VCs (or previous start-up executives) knowledgeable about that category would critique and ask core questions.  Each presenter had a booth in an exhibition hall for further discussion and funding questions. In between these presentation sessions were "Founder School" and "Executive Briefs" sessions to share insights from successful start-ups from the past.

One of those Executive Briefs was particularly interesting to me because it emphasized the need to focus on the needs of the user rather than the brilliance of the product. Jody Holtzman, a spokesman for the AARP - that's right, the Association of American Retired Persons - asked everyone: "What's your 50+ strategy?" His point was simple: if you are in the consumer products business, what's your strategy to address the 106 million Americans that spend over $7 trillion annually? He went on to offer a series of pdf and infographics that describe the needs of this large and growing population.

Each of these 9 areas are detailed in a free report.

An example of the depth of thought in the AARP materials can be seen in the Diet & Nutrition section. Dietary tracking partnered with fitness measurement systems and healthy-eating grocery delivery services are one such suggestion. DEMO presenters nibbled at the edges of these AARP suggestions with apps like Pictrition, which attempts to gamify the process of losing weight. Pictricion "leverages the powerful mechanics of a food journal, but without having to tediously write down every detail of your diet. Just take pictures of the food you eat throughout the day and health conscious people like you will rate how healthy they think it is. Get more points for eating healthier food and compete with friends and family." The app is predicated on research showing that the biggest and most sustained weight losses occur when patients journaled their daily intake.

Perhaps a more relevant DEMO presenter was Hello Doctor, an app created from personal need. It collects scanned images of medical reports of all types and parses for keywords and then tags and digitally files them. If you query HDL you get a chart of all lab reports by date each linked to the original report. It replaces the folders full of medical and insurance records that patients often clutch in waiting rooms and at home as they research their conditions online.

Bounce Imaging displayed a low-cost disposable throwable 360º camera with audio and sensing capability. Unlike Recon Robotics' Scout Throwbots which remotely-controlled-move once thrown into an area under surveillance, Bounce's Explorer captures it's images on the fly - in the air and on the ground. The Explorer has a shock-absorbing shell embedded with six cameras, plus clusters of near-infrared LEDs to light up dark rooms for the cameras. It immediately begins taking photos and testing for methane, carbon monoxide, and dangerously high temperatures. A microprocessor inside the ball then stitches the photos together and converts the raw data for transmission over wifi. Just seconds after the toss, a wrap-around panorama—complete with environmental warnings—appears on the synced tablet or smart device.

One more start-up with good prospects was Skully Helmets. Their smart motorcycle helmet goes way beyond head protection.  The Skully P1 has a heads-up display which shows 180º of the scene behind the rider as well as simple turn-by-turn GPS maps using onboard optics, cameras, sensors and microprocessors.

One tidbit garnered from an Expert Brief by Evernote CEO Phil Libin was regarding acquisition valuations - how do you earn 5-10 times earnings as a value for your company? The single most important criteria seems to be percent of sales growth. If sustained year over year growth is 60% or higher, you have a disruptive winner capable of getting 10 times earnings as an acquisition price; if growth is 20% to 59%, you're still a winner but your multiple will be closer to 2 to 5-times earnings; less than 20% growth is considered a failure in terms of acquisition possibilities.

Start-up Profile: Knightscope

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

What happens when you mix big data analytics, a policeman, homeland security, some funding from an insurance company and robotics?

You get Knightscope, a Santa Clara, California start-up developing a mobile robot which is a part of a multi-part augmentation strategy created to meet the needs of local authorities - cities and their police departments.

Strapped for cash and with limited resources to allocate, municipalities are faced with the same type of problems globally competitive businesses have: the need to use automation where it can either augment or replace limited manpower. There are about 18,000 police departments in the U.S. and about 133,000 K-12 public and private schools. These days, almost all those schools want some form of police monitoring if not physical presence further, straining city and police resources.


The robot is a Segway-based platform with a payload of sensors, cameras and communication devices and a navigation and collision-avoidance system customized to fit various types of community needs. It has a nifty design, enough weight to thwart all but the huskiest of thieves, and sensors for day and nighttime imaging, air quality and temperature monitoring, and cameras for license plate recognition, heat mapping and much more. Linked with other devices such as external cameras, the robot's own streaming cameras, communications with local authorities, and a set of smart software, the robot can patrol and add a wealth of data and support to those other resources.

Stacy Stephens, Knightscope's VP for Marketing and Sales, is an ex-policeman; William Santana Li, the CEO, has design and auto industry and successful start-ups in his background.

What struck me as unusual were the backgrounds of the people involved and their focus on solving a clear and growing problem within our cities. Their approach, which includes many sciences, and cooperation between those sciences and local authorities, is to augment the manpower of those agencies where criteria can be met using sensors, quick analysis of the data, and alarms, rather than feet on the street.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Open vs. Closed Robot Systems


By Frank Tobe, editor/publisher, The Robot Report

To be able to choose between proprietary software packages is to be able to choose your master. Freedom means not having a master. Freedom means not using proprietary software.   - Richard Stallman, open systems advocate
Certainly robotics has its share of proprietary software and control systems. Each robot manufacturer markets their products based on the need for secure, proprietary and un-shared systems so that they can insure stability and control. Whole industries have been set up to bridge those proprietary barriers so that multi-vendor solutions can happen.

Two prominent people in the robotics industry had a discussion on the subject last year. In a spirited cocktail party debate in Lyon, France at InnoRobo 2012, an innovation forum and trade show for service robotics, Colin Angle and Robert Bauer argued their points of view.

Left: Robert Bauer, Executive Director, Commercialization, Willow Garage.
Right: Colin Angle, Chairman of the Board, co-founder and CEO, iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT).
Angle suggested that freely providing such a key and critical component as the robotic operating and simulation system - and the extensive libraries that go with it - as the Open Source Robotics Foundation (previously Willow Garage) does with their open source and unprotected robotic operating system (ROS) - was tantamount to letting the biggest consumer giant(s) gobble up any mass market applications and re-market them globally at low cost because they already have (or could easily reverse-engineer) the hardware and could produce it cheaply, the operating system was free courtesy of ROS, and the only real cost was the acquisition of the application(s).

Angle thought that it was dangerous and led to losing a potentially American/European market to offshore commodity conglomerates and said:
Robotics innovation represents a tremendous opportunity for economic growth akin to automobiles, aerospace and information technology. If we are to freely share our 'intellectual capital' on the open market we risk losing the economic engine that will advance our economies and send growth and jobs overseas.
Cover of 3/19/2012 issue of
Bloomberg Businessweek magazine
The issue of losing trade secrets to foreign conglomerates has been a continuing focus at Bloomberg Businessweek magazine.
In November, 14 U.S. intelligence agencies issued a report describing a far-reaching industrial espionage campaign by Chinese spy agencies. This campaign has been in the works for years and targets a swath of industries: biotechnology, telecommunications, and nanotechnology, as well as clean energy.
It’s the greatest transfer of wealth in history,” said General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency.
Bauer said that Willow Garage's objectives with ROS was to stimulate the industry by enabling participants to not have to reinvent the many cross-science elements of robotics ventures; to reuse software because it saves developer time and allows researchers to focus on research. By giving them free access to the tools, libraries and simulation capabilities of ROS, and access to the PR2s that are available for testing and experimentation, Willow Garage hoped to advance the state-of-the-art in autonomous robotics technologies.

Bauer also said that, once a successful app was developed, at that point the new endeavor would likely lock down the operating system and application software in order to protect their invention.

Angle suggested that what the robotic industry needs for inspiration is successful robotics companies - profitable companies with millionaire employees selling in-demand products; not more notches on the oversized belts of big offshore conglomerates. Further, he said that unless ROS is protected and made stable and secure, it could never be used for sensitive (defense, space, security) solutions, and until it became rugged, secure and stable, it could never be used in factories which cannot afford down time from either their robots or software.

Since that time, solutions that bridge the open vs. shut debate are showing up in many sectors:

  • Willow Garage has transitioned ROS to two different non-profit foundations to continue development of ROS and ROS-Industrial: The Open Source Robotics Foundation and the ROSIndustrial.org.
  • ROS-Industrial is a new effort to enable closed industrial systems to at least have a "front end" to make available the introduction of new sensors, make robot programing and simulation easier, and take advantage of the wealth of new talent exposed to ROS in academia.
  • Start-up companies selling co-robots are using ROS and beginning to share application software. Danish Universal Robots and Rod Brooks' Rethink Robotics both use ROS for software development but not for control systems. Rethink Robotics plans to offer an SDK capability with an app store for robotics applications shared by other Baxter users sometime in 2014. The SDK is already available in the academic version of Baxter.
  • Industrial robot makers are beginning to provide ROS-like capabilities in the form of updated software and simulation suites, e.g., ABB Robotics recently introduced RobotStudio which is a GIS interface to ABB's proprietary internals for robot simulation and programming.
Thus as the debate rages on, so too do the very pragmatic solutions that are necessary to make things move forward and work.

The best solutions often involve multiple vendors. Look at the Tesla factory. Integrating their software and control systems into the larger manufacturing system or just between different systems on a line involves serious talented programming -- a process which everyone agrees needs to be simplified and made less costly.

ROS-like products are fine for development and simulation and because they are prevalent in most of academia, new hires are familiar with what it does and how it works. But that's when those new hires are confronted with the complexities of proprietary software and teaching pendants. I've heard it said that it's like going back to the mainframe era of computing. At the least, it involves learning old-style coding languages.

Most of the big robot manufacturers are beginning to make an effort to improve their training and programming methods, get them onto more practical tablets, and provide offline simulation. But the going is slow, hence the argument for open source rages on. The truth appears to be in the middle: older systems need to be updated yet still retain their proprietary nature. Mix and match between vendors is a fact of life and needs to be accommodated either by the use of ROS-Industrial or by the robot manufacturers themselves in the form of a new set of standards and interfaces.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Co-robots really ARE a BIG thing

By Frank Tobe, editor and publisher, The Robot Report

UPDATED: October 6, 2013

CBS Evening News focuses on jobs aspect of deploying robots in American factories. Click to see.
Small and medium shops and factories (SMEs) are an untapped marketplace for robotics and direly in need of automation to remain competitive in this global economy. Two new start up companies: Rethink Robotics and Universal Robots have entered that marketplace. Both companies have U.S. sales in the hundreds of units; Universal has a head start internationally and has sold about 3,000 to-date, but Rethink is way ahead in the US. Both have similar 60-100/mo manufacturing run rates - so the future looks bright for selling flexible, lightweight, low-cost robots that are easily programmed, safe for humans to work alongside, don't require a caged or roped off area, and perform at affordable metrics.

The importance of this new robotic capability and its effect on jobs was the subject of a CBS News piece on October 5. A few of the quotes from that newscast:
  • U.S. productivity and efficiency are three times greater than China.
  • Baxter's effective cost is $3 per hour.
  • 3-5 million new jobs will happen this decade due to the deployment of Baxter and other co-robots.
Boston-based Rethink Robotics - the maker of the low-cost two-armed Baxter robot shown above on the left - has already begun to sell to small and medium-sized U.S. businesses (SMEs) as well as schools and colleges. They recently announced beginning to sell to European academic institutions.

Danish-based Universal Robots has started to benefit from sales from their new distributor network in the U.S. supplementing their growing European, Asian and International distributor networks and robot sales.


In addition to the CBS News video above, each company has provided a video profiling how their client companies are using and benefitting from the use of their respective robots. Although these videos are public relations puff pieces, they are also an information resource describing the needs smaller companies have and the benefits offered by robotics.

UNIVERSAL ROBOTS

Of the two companies, for the present time, Universal Robots UR robots are better able to handle industrial tasks than Baxter robots. Universal's UR5 and UR10 robots can handle 5 and 10 kilos respectively and have sufficient torque to pull open doors and operate hand tools. They also run faster.

Universal Robots got lots of publicity last month when it became known that a UR robot was working at a VW diesel engine production plant in Germany. It was the first publicly-known instance of a robot working alongside a human in an auto factory. In that example, the robot carefully picks up delicate glow plugs and places them into hard-to-reach drill holes alongside a human who then insulates the cylinder head. The robot acts as an assistant and enables the worker to carry out their activities in an upright, healthy posture, unlike previous methods. This week MIT Technology Review showed another Universal robot, this time at a BMW factory in South Carolina, helping workers perform door assembly by doing the strenuous task of applying door sealant thereby freeing human workers to do the less physical tasks.

In the following video, a 72-person short-run metal products maker displays two applications for their new UR robot: CNC machine tending and loading and unloading a metal bender.
[In a recent case study, machine-loaded costs for a part came to $0.97/part in the U.S. and $0.76/part in China. When a robot was used for machine tending and loading, the total cost shifted to $0.73/part in the U.S. versus $0.76/part in China (including offshore costs like duties and transportation fees). In the study, using the robot boosted efficiency. The machine utilization under manual loading was 82%, when you account for shift changes and breaks. When robots did the tending and loading, the efficiency figure approached 99%. Source: PlasticsToday and Fanuc Robotics.]



RETHINK ROBOTICS

Rethink's Baxter robots, because of their present speed and load limitations, are being used for pick and place tasks in SMEs and training and education in schools, colleges and research labs. Rethink has scheduled updates throughout 2013 and 2014 to upgrade Baxter and just released a software upgrade which enables Baxter to perform a new set of manufacturing apps. The academic version of Baxter includes an SDK capability which "presents endless possibilities for our students to create new applications. With the SDK running on ROS, students are able to share innovations and build on each other's work," said one college professor. Rethink has scheduled enabling the SDK feature in their industrial version of Baxter sometime in 2014.

In the following video, a 100-person plastics manufacturer which already uses industrial robots and knows their high costs and other limitations, found that the low-cost, flexible and easily programable Baxter robot, by being so adaptable, is easily able to assist them in various end-of-conveyor completion and packaging tasks.




Both robot systems use a version of the open source ROS Robotic Operating System but each has different user interfaces to that software. ROS is the predominant software used in universities teaching robotics.

In addition to providing low-cost and integrator-free robots to SME's, another trend is occurring: providing a ROS front-end to add features to existing industrial robots. Traditional industrial robots have proprietary operating systems and require very specialized programmers to make changes, yet robot users are demanding that their existing systems add newer features such as mobility and navigation and vision enabled systems. ROS-Industrial makes the process of enabling those features less problematic and costly. ROS-Industrial was developed jointly by the ROS folks, Motoman USA and SwRI (Southwest Research Institute). The following video shows the interoperability of two different brands of robot working together on a task. I saw this process in person earlier this year at AUTOMATE 2013 in Chicago. Very impressive; very logical.



CONCLUSION

The falling cost of creating robots will surely benefit the SME manufacturing industry - as can be seen by the successes of Rethink and Universal and their robots. But they may also play a vital role in increasing productivity in other industries as well. Collaborative robots (also called co-robots) will soon be seen in many other work situations all over the world, thus co-robotics are truly a BIG thing.