Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Top Robotics-Related Stories of 2013

by Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report


Top Robotics-Related Stories of 2013 

(all appearing in The Robot Report)

  • Google sets up Robot Division; acquires 7 start ups plus Boston Dynamics to jump-start operations
  • ROBO ETF tracking Robo-stox index created to let investors invest in the robotics industry
  • WSJ, NYT, CBS 60-Minutes, CNN Money, NBC all focus on robotics - including two covers stories in Time Magazine and two 60-Minutes segments
  • China’s 5-year plan targets robotics as a growth industry and sets up specific areas for industrial robot manufacturing, service robot development and marketing and support centers
  • Mako Surgical sells to Stryker for $1.65 billion; Apple buys PrimeSense for $350 million; MakerBot sells to Stratasys for $403 million; $35 million to 3D Robotics to mainstream aerial robotics and Airware gets $10.7 million to build generic autopilot for UASs; Liquid Robotics gets $45 million to expand marketing and double their fleet of wave gliders and KUKA buys 51% of Reis Robotics 
  • Willow Garage closes; 7 spin-offs remain; Scott Hassan moves to and heads Suitable Technologies (of Beam telepresence robot fame)
  • Unbounded Robotics - one of those spin-offs - unveiled their UR1 mobile robot. $35,000 for a one-armed robot made by the same people that developed the Willow Garage PR2 (which sold for $400,000 when it came out in 2009)
  • Rethink Robotics and Universal Robots off to good start in SME marketplace - co-robots really are a big thing. SMEs aren’t the only marketplace: VW and BMW are both using new co-bots to augment worker capabilities in auto plants.
  • Smithsonian Channel Bionic Man documentary and museum exhibitions fascinate audiences with 50% bionic man
  • Crowd funding sites will soon let investors buy stock; just waiting for regs from SEC.
  • IFR reports for industrial robot industry shows good growth prospects for rest of decade; reports for service robotics industry shows promising growth particularly in medical and logistical systems making up for the decline in defense spending

Lower-key Stories:

  • First use of robotic anesthesiologist gives rise to a whole new marketplace
  • Beams used for telepresence at trade show
  • FoxBot line of robots by Foxconn slowly entering Foxconn factories
  • Russia focusing on robotics startups and innovation in general
  • New Kinect completely redone; windfall for robotics
  • X-47B unmanned jet takes off and lands from aircraft carrier
  • List of hardware accelerators growing as are incubators and angel investors
  • ROS-Industrial list of partners growing exponentially
  • Updated Roadmap for US Robotics released and presented to Congressional Caucus
  • Intuitive Surgical regularly pummeled in news for a variety of reasons

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Rethink Robotics is downsizing

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

A sad day at Rethink Robotics. 21 jobs have been cut in Rethink's first layoff.

Although Rethink Robotics is downsizing, their action is not indicative of the robotics industry which is booming and hiring.

The Boston Globe reported that Rethink Robotics, maker of the $22,000 Baxter 2-armed robot, has cut 21 jobs from their staff of approximately 90.

In the Boston Globe article Rethink CEO Scott Eckert said:
The layoffs are the result of Rethink deciding to focus on the market segments that have been most receptive to Baxter since its launch: plastics manufacturing, consumer goods packaging, warehousing and logistics. Our volume trends are encouraging, our customer pipeline is encouraging, and we expect to see significant growth in 2014, however we will be able to achieve that in a more focused manner with fewer resources.
Since 2005, Rethink Robotics (previously named Heartland Robotics) has taken in $73.5 million from Boston-based VCs and Bezos Expeditions (the personal investment fund of Jeff Bezos), the most recent $11.5 million in November, 2013 (source: CrunchBase).

Rethink Robotics' Rodney Brooks
Rethink Chairman and Chief Technology Officer Rodney Brooks has been an energetic and eloquent spokesman for building and selling an affordable, safe and easy to train plug and play robot to help US manufacturers -- particularly smaller shops and factories. With such a robot, Brooks assured, these businesses could increase productivity and keep jobs from migrating offshore. The two-armed Baxter robot is his vision. Thus it comes as a big surprise that Rethink needs to retrench their operations and cut 23+% of their staff to focus on the few industry sectors in which they have deployed robots.

Brooks has been right on the mark in describing the needs of small and medium-sized manufacturers. He's defined the marketplace, defined their needs, and gotten people to accept that an easy-to-train robot can help improve productivity, be safe to work alongside and have affordable metrics. He's even built and funded a company that ramped up to be able to produce 1,000 of these robots a year. But the robot itself doesn't measure up to those needs at present. It's been a work in progress -- a miraculous achievement but one not fully ready for factory operations. Perhaps this highly publicized ramping up has clouded the focus on improving the product to live up to their promise (and the sizzle that Brooks has been selling).

Baxter's main competitor has many of the same positive characteristics as Baxter: relatively low cost, it's safe to work alongside humans, it's plug and play, and training is relatively easy. Universal Robot's UR line of robots cost a bit more and only have one arm. However, they work much faster, with more precision, can carry a heavier load and are engineered to have a longer work life.

Universal Robots has sold 2,500+ robots in 50+ countries through more than 200 distributors in the last five years. The Danish robot manufacturer added 50 people in 2013, a 100% increase in the company staff currently totaling 97 worldwide, and is hiring for 2014. They are ramping up to move into larger facilities with a much greater manufacturing capability.

Ed Mullen, the company’s National Sales Manager in North America attributes the growth of Universal Robots to the quality and capability of the robots the company has been able to create. "They meet the expectations of SMEs: a collaborative, user-friendly robot presenting a plug&play automation solution for a wide range of industries. Not only have we been able to penetrate large accounts -- supplying the first collaborative robots to BMW and VW -- we've also been able to get our robots on the shop floors of many small and medium sized businesses that never thought they'd be able to employ a robot due to cost and complexity."

With financial news reporting big robotic acquisitions by Stryker ($1.5 billion for MAKO Surgical Robotics), Apple ($350 million for PrimeSense) and Google which has set up a robotics division and seeded it with seven start-ups and an eighth acquisition announced today - Boston Dynamics (of Big Dog, Cheetah and ATLAS fame) - it seems clear that the layoff at Rethink is not indicative of the robotics industry in general. In fact, there's a hiring boom searching for robotics talent country-wide.

How can it be that such a prominent headliner as Rethink Robotics is regrouping? Four likely answers: (1) they were trying to do too much with too many people; (2) they were rushed to market by their VC investors; (3) they provided a product (the Baxter robot) that offered too much but didn't do it too well; and (4) they haven't yet finished the development of their product so that it delivers what the buyers want and need: a fast, safe, flexible, cheap and easy to train co-robot.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Apple, Amazon and now Google: It's a pretty exciting time for robotics!

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

There is serious momentum in robotics these days evidenced by recent news from Apple, Amazon and Google:
  • Apple announced that they were investing $10.5 billion in supply chain robots and automation equipment and recently confirmed their acquisition of PrimeSense for $350 million (PrimeSense is the developer of the Kinnect 3D system used by MS Xbox).
  • Amazon, in a CBS 60 Minutes piece which aired last Sunday, displayed a new concept delivery system using an octocopter. Remember that in 2012 Amazon spent $750 million to acquire Kiva Systems, the robot technology enabling robotically-delivered goods to a picker/packer.
  • And now Google has set up a robotics division headed by the man behind the Android operating system, Andy Rubin. In Rubin's first six months he has acquired seven robotic companies to jump start his new operation.
  • UPDATE 12-14-13: Google confirms its eighth acquisition: Boston Dynamics. The new acquisition is an engineering company that specializes in building dynamic robots and software for human simulation. The acquisition adds 80+ technicians, engineers and scientists to the new Google Robots Division talent pool - plus a new location.
What's it all mean?

First, some details.
Andy Rubin and Meka robot.
  • From a NY Times article by John Markoff interviewing Google's Andy Rubin:
    • Google acquired 7 tech companies in the last 6 months. Schaft, a Japanese start-up developing a humanoid robot; Industrial Perception, a Silicon Valley start-up that developed a computer vision system for loading and unloading trucks; Meka Robotics, a robot developer for academia; Redwood Robotics, a start-up intended to compete with the Baxter robot (and others) entering the small and medium-sized shop and factory marketplace; Bot & Dolly, a maker of robotic camera systems used for special effects such as in the movie "Gravity;" Autofuss, a design and marketing firm and a partner in Bot & Dolly; and Holomni, a maker of powered caster modules for omnidirectional vehicles.
    • Although Google won't disclose their plans, the article suggests that the company's initial market will be in manufacturing, e.g., electronics assembly which is mostly done by hand. "Manufacturing and logistics markets not being served by today's robotic technologies are clear opportunity markets," said Rubin.
    • The article suggests that the new Google robots will be able to automate any or all of the processes from the supply chain to the distribution channels to the consumer's front door thereby creating a massive opportunity.
    • Google is already experimenting with urban deliveries including making home deliveries for companies like Target, Walgreens and others.
    • According to Markoff, "Mr. Rubin said he had pondered the possibility of a commercial effort in robotics for more than a decade. He has only recently come to think that a range of technologies have matured to the point where new kinds of automated systems can be commercialized."
  • From The SFGate Tech Chronicles by James Temple:
    • Google is transforming itself in many ways including its new robotics division. Its constantly transforming its search engine into a sophisticated learning machine using artificial intelligence tools. Some of that AI talent is moving over to the new Robotics Division.
    • It's been hiring super brains such as Ray Kurzweil and Peter Norvig and inhouse star Andy Rubin to head groups and divisions moving toward product development and even hardware manufacturing (remember that Google owns Motorola - both a ready-made client for assembly and materials handling robots and a resource of factories, equipment and manpower).
    • "Google's move into robotics is likely to draw renewed attention and money into the space," said Brian Gerkey in the article. "It's a pretty exciting day for robotics when someone like Google makes an investment like that in robots, others are likely to follow suit. It can only spur investment and innovation."
  • From Bloomberg News by Adam Satariano:
    • Apple is investing $10.5 billion in new technologies and robotics to polish the new iPhone 5C's colored plastic cover, to laser and CNC machines to carve the MacBook's aluminum body, and for testing and inspection gear for iPhone and iPad lenses.
    • Apple invested $6.5 billion on similar robotics and factory automation equipment in their previous fiscal year.
    • Samsung has indicated it plans to spend $22 billion in capital expenditures this year but didn't disclose any further details.
  • For a review of the CBS 60 Minutes interview of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Charlie Rose, see my previous post, "Jeff Bezos Reaches for Tip of UAS Iceberg."
  • UPDATE 12-14-13: From a NY Times article by John Markoff about the Boston Dynamics acquisition:
    • Markoff says: "The deal is also the clearest indication yet that Google is intent on building a new class of autonomous systems that might do anything from warehouse work to package delivery and even elder care."
    • Boston Dynamics, a 1992 spin-off from MIT, has been a great resource for youTube videos of wild robots. Their Big Dog video has been watched by more than 15 million viewers; their ATLAS robot video, the base robot given to the DARPA Robotics Challenge teams - a challenge to speed development of robotics technology for disaster response - has already passed the 2.5 million mark.
    • This is not an insignificant acquisiton. An ongoing business employing 80+ highly paid engineers and scientists has to have cost Google a very high amount, perhaps in the low 9 figures.
    • Boston Dynamic's CEO and founder Marc Raibert was quoted in the article: "I am excited by Andy and Google's ability to think very, very big, with the resources to make it happen."
What's all this mean? 

I think the yellow highlighted quote from Brian Gerkey sums up all these investments nicely: It's a pretty exciting day for robotics when Google, Apple and Amazon ALL invest in robots and robotics. Others are likely to follow spurring further investment and innovation. Up until now, the big four of industrial robotics (KUKA, Fanuc, ABB and Yaskawa Motoman) were all foreign firms while two smaller American firms (iRobot and Intuitive Surgical) led the emerging service new-tech robotics sector. The remainder of this decade will be filled with amazing new robotics products from a variety of new providers -- including Apple, Amazon and Google.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Jeff Bezos Reaches For Tip of UAS Iceberg

Charlie Rose.
Photo courtesy of CBS News.
By Frank Tobe, Editor/Publisher, The Robot Report

On Sunday, Charlie Rose from CBS News 60 Minutes, interviewed Jeff Bezos about what is next for Amazon, the world's largest online retailer with more than 225 million customers.

Volume can reach 300 items a second on special sales days and that volume feeds the activities at 96 Amazon warehouse/distribution centers around the world. Amazon's goal is to sell everything to everyone and their warehousing and shipping methods have been of constant interest because of their success at being able to deliver as promised. For robotics-interested people, Amazon acquired Kiva Systems and their robotic shelf-to-picker system for $750 million two years ago. Interestingly, in this 60 Minutes interview, no mention was made of Kiva or that method of pick and pack. [Why was that?]

"The secret is we are on our 7th generation of fulfillment centers - and we've gotten better every time," Bezos said during the interview. An example of this type of improvement is that Amazon can now store twice as many goods in its centers as it did 5 years ago.

A portion of the 60 Minutes piece was about Amazon and its web services group AWS. Little known facts emerged from this part of the interview: AWS hosts Netflix and the CIA as well as providing the cloud for itself and other big enterprises and governmental institutions.

Bezos straight talk was evident throughout. Consider this example:
Charlie Rose: A lotta small book publishers and other smaller companies worry that the power of Amazon gives them no chance. 
Jeff Bezos: You gotta earn your keep in this world. When you invent something new, if customers come to the party, it’s disruptive to the old way. The Internet is disrupting every media industry. People can complain about that, but complaining is not a strategy. And Amazon is not happening to book selling, the future is happening to book selling.
Jeff Bezos.
Photo courtesy of CBS News 60 Minutes.
In an Overtime piece one can also see the genius in Bezos when he described the process of moving so many goods through the system - including the new PrimeAir: "It's a symphony of people, a symphony of software and... a symphony of robots."

Amazon has a not-so-secret lab in Silicon Valley, Lab 126. Charlie Rose pressed Bezos for any big surprises that might be forthcoming and Bezos showed him their new concept delivery system using an octocopter. The robot aircraft could haul a package of up to 5 pounds (approximately 86% of Amazon's sales fit this category) and autonomously deliver it within a 10-mile radius from the fulfillment center. Branded as Amazon PrimeAir, a video showing how it works has already been viewed by over 9.5 million youTube viewers.

Photo courtesy of CBS News 60 Minutes.
Media of all types had a field day with the 60 Minutes broadcast and the video of Amazon PrimeAir in action. Amongst the most prominent of the naysayers was CNN Money who didn't see the bigger, long-term picture Bezos is planning for.
The world isn't ready for Amazon drones. Besides being illegal, the sensor technology to avoid collisions isn't there yet.
Certainly the best one-liner came from a Tweet from a reporter at Bezos' own Washington Post: "So basically free stuff from Amazon if you're a good shot with a rifle."

Most seemed to miss the point that concept cars, planes and... octocopters are needed ideas awaiting technologies to fill in the gaps which will turn the concept into economic reality and a feasible product.

Amongst the more informed, Michael Toscano, President of AUVSI, commented:
Amazon's concept delivery system demonstrates the promise of unmanned aircraft systems. It underscores how this innovative technology will transform the way industries operate. Whether it is improving agriculture output, helping first responders, advancing scientific research, or making business more efficient, UAS are capable of saving time, money and lives. 
While Amazon demonstrated that deliveries via UAS are technically feasible, the commercial use of UAS is currently prohibited in the United States. The FAA, however, is currently working to establish rules for commercial use. Even Amazon has acknowledged the regulatory framework needs to be in place before it can launch its service, and this is going to take until at least 2015. 
Like many other companies and industries, Amazon is testing UAS now so that it can be ready to recognize the benefits of the technology once UAS are fully integrated into the U.S. airspace in the coming years. 
The wider use of UAS will have a huge economic impact in the U.S. for both the public and commercial sectors. Our economic study released earlier this year found that the UAS industry will have an $82 billion economic impact and create more than 100,000 jobs in the first decade after integration.
Certainly there will be many technological, insurance and regulatory hurdles before we see a fleet of Amazon PrimeAir, or FedEx Today, or even Papa John Pizza Express. With the endorsement of Jeff Bezos, the tip of the iceberg has been reached and it's all downhill from there. His optimistic viewpoint is that we'll see Amazon PrimeAir in four to five years.