Showing posts with label Colin Angle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Colin Angle. Show all posts

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, 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.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Beginning of Something Important: InTouch Health and iRobot's RP-VITA

 By Frank Tobe, editor/publisher, The Robot Report

Last week I attended the 7th Annual Remote Presence Clinical Innovations Forum hosted by InTouch Health in Santa Barbara, CA, a two-day users conference disseminating the latest information regarding a wide range of telemedicine-related topics through presentations and workshops. The keynote address, by Yulun Wang, Chairman and CEO of InTouch Health and Colin Angle, Chairman, co-founder and CEO of iRobot, Remote Presence's Future: From Enabling Access to Coordinating Care, provided the platform to announce and display InTouch Health's new RP-VITA telepresence robot which autonomously brought itself onstage skillfully avoiding a few obstacles.

InTouch Health has installed their remote presence robots and portable devices in hospitals all over the world, and their devices are used more frequently year by year. In his keynote speech, Wang said they were in "500 hospitals and have 60,000 high acuity consults a year now, and growing at a nice clip." This is up from 300 hospitals and 20,000 consults two years ago.

After the address I spent a few moments with Colin and asked him about iRobot's role with InTouch and about their goals for their new mobility platform.

I saw and played with the new RP-VITA robots and they are truly slick. But the most enlightening thing I saw was four hours of tightly-packed presentations by critical care doctors and hospital administrators, all users of InTouch Health's remote presence robots, and all portraying different aspects of why remote presence in health care is relevant, is saving lives and is necessary today and why it will continue to be in the future.
  • A Trauma Telemedicine outfit from Halifax, Canada is providing pre-natal care in a Third World South American nation. They are using InTouch Health's portable remote presence devices with a traveling nurse to assist in taking and discussing ultra sound exams and other pre-natal treatments with health care professionals in Canada for rural pregnant women.
  • Two hospital systems (one in Florida and the other in Pennsylvania) are letting their patients see their doctors by telepresence at nearby local facilities using InTouch's robots and other telepresence technology thereby making in unnecessary to drive to a big city university hospital.
  • Virtual tutoring was presented - in which an amazing feat of software was shown - superimposing the consulting surgeon's hands over the view of the actual surgery so that it could be seen and discussed by both the consulting and on-site physicians.
  • Robots were used to provide admitting and initial diagnosis -- one system actually has a 7 pm to 7 am robot shift. Nurses commented that by using the robots they could quickly get nighttime help and, because of the cameras and two-way dialogue capabilities, there has been no disagreement about what is seen by each of the various people involved.
  • A survey at one hospital utilizing InTouch robots showed a reduction of length-of-stay by 1+ days, the average patient census was down by 1, and there was an increase in cases by 9.
  • In a couple of presentations, a mobile robot was hooked up to the ballroom speaker system when the speaker had to be in two places at the same time. One doctor was a team physician for an Olympic soccer team in London; another missed a plane and was using his laptop at the airport to operate the robot on the stage.
  • There was one testimonial after another -- and that was before the announcement of the new RP-VITA robot!

iRobot's Mobility Platform

iRobot's mobility platform is as slick, shiny and elegantly crafted as is the re-designed InTouch Health application station and "head" that is mounted atop it. Neatly encased in iRobot's pedestal are three PrimeSense 3D sensors (two below and one above), four omni-directional Swedish wheels, an acoustic sensor, a laser sensor and iRobot's Aware2 operating system. For the joint venture with InTouch, iRobot has provided an enhanced navigation system so that the device can quickly and autonomously move from point to point, rerouting as necessary for collision avoidance. This frees the health care professional from remotely driving the robot. [The autonomy feature is pending FDA approval which is expected in Q4.]

Also, the new RP-VITA specs contain a simple-to-use iPad interface for navigation and interaction with the patient and health care team. Thus, with the Aware2 operating system and software developer kit (SDK), and an iPad SDK both available to developers, thousands of developers can provide applications for a single, solid, proven platform.

Product engineering and appearance are always important considerations. Continued Colin, "When we test drove the RP-VITA without the skin, people thought it moved too fast and was unstable. But when we encased it and made it look as it does now, there were none of those complaints."

Colin Angle stated that iRobot's ultimate goal is to have a multi-purpose mobile robot in every home for every type of care and service. Thus, with this smooth-running new RP-VITA platform and the Aware2 SDK, iRobot is ready to take its know-how anywhere and everywhere. About the joint venture, Angle commented that "It was definitely the beginning of something important."

InTouch Health's RP-VITA Mobile Robot


Over the past 10 years, InTouch Health has been modifying it's remote presence products to adapt to what health care professionals have needed. They gradually came to the conclusion that one methodology doesn't fit all needs. Enabling a doctor to be in two places at once involves a whole series of products and systems. Currently they have three very capable solutions to those remote presence needs: a portable Xpress device for ambulances and remote locations unfriendly to mobile robots; a portable operating room station (Vantage and Lite); and the new mobile VITA robot. The swiveling wide-angle and zoom cameras and monitor and the two-way communication are integral parts of all of their products. The general purpose of each product is to easily perform real-time consults with patients and other physicians and health care providers through the use of secure interfaces supported by a speedy and secure network infrastructure.

As a pioneer in the field of health care telepresence, InTouch Health has had the unenviable task of keeping up with technological change while offering state-of-the-art remote presence robotic products. The release of this new RP-VITA robot and the partnership with iRobot, indicate how this new venture is paying off: the integration of new iPad apps integrated with the iRobot platform and an API making further clinical apps easily available, InTouch seems to have a viable forward plan.

However, competition is just around the corner. VGo Communication, Giraff Technologies and other telepresence robot companies are working with hospitals and municipalities to find uses their products can provide:
  • Visiting Nurse & Hospice of Vermont and New Hampshire has leased four VGo robots for a pilot program. They will be on site to supplement nurses in homes of patients in the group’s hospice to allow medical specialists in other locations to have live consultations about the case.
  • Another pilot program using VGos is under way with Children’s Hospital Boston where the hospital sends VGos home with kids after their operations so that doctors can check on their young patients once they’re home and talk with parents or caregivers about their care.
  • Giraffs are being placed by visiting nurses where frequent contact is desired. Giraffs can also be used by family members for communication and video conferencing.
Certainly, the joint venture with iRobot has freed InTouch to focus more on what it does best and leave the driving to iRobot.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

iRobot and Willow Garage Debate Closed vs. Open Source Robotics at Cocktail Party

A version of this post originally appeared on Automaton, IEEE Spectrum's robotics blog.

By Frank Tobe, editor/publisher, The Robot Report

What's the best approach to building commercially successful robotics companies? Here are two arguments from two prominent people in the robotics industry:
  1. Identify a need that can be filled with a robotic solution in a large marketplace and build a practical and specialized robotic product to satisfy that need.
  2. Make it free and easy to design, program, simulate and test robotic applications and share your progress, problems and results with others all over the world using a common platform and the applications will come.
These two points of view were presented in a spirited cocktail party debate the other evening in Lyon, France at InnoRobo 2012, an innovation forum and trade show for service robotics. Here's how it happened, who they were, and what they said.

Left: Robert Bauer, Executive Director, Commercialization, Willow Garage, a privately held corporation.
Right: Colin Angle, Chairman of the Board, co-founder and CEO, iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT).
I interviewed Colin Angle shortly after he gave a presentation about the need for robotic solutions in health care and asked him, amongst other questions, what he thought about Willow Garage's ROS open source software concept. He said he thought it was dangerous to the industry and was fearful that it was also detrimental to the monetizing of the service robotics sector in particular.

Later I was meeting with Tim Field from Willow Garage when Robert Bauer joined the conversation. Bauer was a substitute Willow Garage speaker because Steve Cousins had to alter his travel plans. In his presentation, Bauer made the point that hardware was farther along than AI software and that AI, 3D and application software were where the robotics industry needed help.

Out of fun I told Bauer what Angle said and he became feisty and said he'd love to debate Angle as to which method contributed more to product development and commercialization.

Coincidentally, at a cocktail party for speakers, exhibitors and hosts that same evening, I was casually talking with Bauer when Angle came by to say hello to me and I introduced him to Bauer -- and the fun began.

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 ROS - as 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, could produce it cheaply, the operating system was free courtesy of ROS, and the only real cost was the acquisition of the application(s).

Cover of 3/19/2012 issue of
Bloomberg Businessweek magazine
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.
The issue of losing trade secrets to foreign conglomerates was the subject of this week's Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. Here's a particularly relevant quote from the cover story - and keep in mind that the operating system mentioned was protected but hacked; nevertheless the story is relevant to this discussion:
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.

As the toll adds up, political leaders and intelligence officials in the U.S. and Europe are coming to a disturbing conclusion. “It’s the greatest transfer of wealth in history,” General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, said at a security conference at New York’s Fordham University in January.

[The article went on to describe the plight of AMSC, an American wind turbine developer, as they discovered that not only had their software been stolen, but Chinese companies had duplicated most of their component parts as well.] 
AMSC technicians tapped into the turbine’s computer to get to the bottom of the glitch. The problem wasn’t immediately clear, so the technicians made a copy of the control system’s software and sent it to the company’s research center which produced some startling findings. The Sinovel turbine appeared to be running a stolen version of AMSC’s software. Worse, the software revealed that Sinovel had complete access to AMSC’s proprietary source code. In short, Sinovel didn’t really need AMSC anymore.

... On April 5, AMSC had no choice but to announce that Sinovel—its biggest customer, accounting for more than two-thirds of the company’s $315 million in revenue in 2010—had stopped making purchases. Investors fled, erasing 40 percent of AMSC’s value in a single day and 84 percent of it by September. The company’s stock chart looks like the EKG of a person rushing toward white light.
Colin Angle 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."

Bauer said that Willow Garage's objectives were to stimulate the industry by enabling participants to not have to reinvent the many cross-science elements of robotics ventures; to reuse software under the premise that by so doing 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, its many libraries, and access to the PR2s that are available for testing and experimentation, Willow Garage hopes to advance the state-of-the-art in autonomous robotics technologies. Says Steve Cousins, CEO, "We want everyone to work together. We're happy having a smaller piece of the pie, but having the pie be much bigger."

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

Kiva Systems shelf-moving robots.
They slip under the shelves, screw themselves tight, and then bring the shelves to the picker/packers.
Supporting Angle's position to find a problem and develop a unique robotic solution is today's news that Amazon has acquired Kiva Systems (for $775 million!). Kiva Systems is the company that turned warehousing upside down by using robots to bring shelves to the pickers and packers instead of vice versa.

To Bauer, Angle suggested that ROS itself could be locked down, protected, and commercialized now - and that it should be done right away - and that what the robotic industry needs for inspiration is winning robotics companies - profitable companies with millionaire employees selling in-demand products, as would happen if ROS privatized; not more notches on the oversized belts of big offshore conglomerates. But he also 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 that cannot afford down time from their robots or software.

He said it would make him happy if all the people that displayed their robots at Innorobo were successful and wealthy, but that the opposite was more likely because the right big-market robotic applications hadn't happened just yet.

The discussion went on and ended with Bauer inviting Angle to continue the discussion onsite at Willow Garage and Angle agreeing to do it.

I hope I have presented the two positions fairly because I think that both sides have merit. Using the analogy that developing apps for smartphones and tablets is similar to developing applications for service robots in the open source community of shared libraries, imagine how much talent is being squandered in the whimsy of making a fun app? Do we have to sift through the chaos and diversity of thousands of apps to find the few - if any - that are suitable for real business tasks? Or would we be better served to rethink how we satisfy real needs by building specific products to satisfy those needs?

What do you think?