Monday, November 9, 2009

Robot stocks rising steadily; iRobot stock up 9%, iRobot Healthcare

The past month has seen a number of good headlines:

iRobot announced Healthcare division

Their stock price is up, showing again investors believe in the future of robotics

Robotic stocks in general are rising

(Courtesy The Robot Report)

People are just beginning to glimpse a new market forming...a world wide need, slow but inexorable, for robot helpers in first-world nations. And investors are beginning to take note.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

iRobot Jumps Further into Service Robotics

Recently iRobot has been talking up a new division they are forming to create healthcare robotics:

This is significant because healthcare robotics is one of the areas where service robots will finally break through to the public eye.

In part this is about money. The United States, Japan, and Europe are in a financial crisis but are facing an even larger crisis. There simply isn't enough money to provide all the health care that is needed for the baby boomers in the next 20 years. Government planners are seeing trillions of dollars of trouble.

So the federal government is writing essentially a blank check to anybody who can provide significant cost reductions for elder and handicapped care. Think of it as an infinite pot of money. Robotics can be a big part of that, and every bit of robotics developed for healthcare has use in consumer, manufacturing, and othersectors. It's a multi-decade long opportunity to build the next high tech superstar industry.

iRobot naturally plans to be part of that, and they are very effective at working with federal grant agencies.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Panasonic Announces Kitchen Robot, Forecasts Billion Sales by 2015

Wow, the cool announcements are coming fast. Here is a new kitchen-specific robot from Panasonic.

It's not mobile, but still qualifies as a service robot.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Jeff Bezos Invests $7 million in Heartland Robotics

Heartland Robotics is a startup headquarted in Boston, one of the great robotics centers of the world. Heartland was founded by Rodney Brooks, a distinguished researcher from MIT, one of the most influential roboticists of the decade and co-founder of iRobot.

So with those credentials, we expect amazing things from Heartland and apparently, others do as well. The VC investing arm of Amazon's Jeff Bezos (who is also a technology maven of the first order, and according to all accounts, a very nice guy) just announced a $7 million series A investment in Heartland.

This is not only good news for Heartland but for American industry in general. Heartland's stated mission is to revitalize the american manufacturing sector with next-generation, flexible robots that collaborate with human workers.

Congratulations to Heartland Robotics, and we are looking forward some great new advances.

Willow Garage Ramping Up for Production

Willow Garage has been posting pictures of their facility re-build, preparing to begin production of their PR-2 jservice robot.

Here is the building being stripped out.
Here is a bit of production floor tooling.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Heartland, Rodney Brooks, and Manufacturing Robotics

Heartland Robotics is a startup headquarted in Boston, still in stealth mode. Their stated mission is to build next generation flexible manufacturing robots that will collaborate with human workers intelligently.

Video of Brooks giving speech about manfacturing robotics

Shown above: Rodney Brooks speech at Maker Fair.

This is a crucial mission. The US and other high-wage nations must learn how to compete with workers who make 1/20th the houly wage. The only way to do this is to multiply the efforts of blue-collar workers, in essence, to make them 20 times as effective.

This can no longer be done with only with the high end machinery and mass production lines that American manufacturers have employed so successfully for so long. The markets have changed, with faster product cycles and shorter runs making such "big automation" uneconomical. We simply cannot continue with large up-front costs and long cycle times. The US manufacturing sector needs to change over to much more flexible automation that can turn on a dime and change rapidly.

Chinese manufacturers can undercut our costs because they don't use automated tooling on that scale. They just hire 1000 hard working low-wage workers, give them simpler tooling, and start them working. The human worker is still the most flexible "automation" in the world. If you can get human workers cheap, and deploy them in large numbers, you can drope prices rapidly.

The solution for the US is to leverage our better training and better technology. We need a massive upgrade of the tools provided to our workers. Those new tools should include flexible collaborative manufacturing robots.

Don't think of these robots as replacements for human workers. Think of them as replacements for the older, less flexible tooling.

In fact, it's very likely that the net effect on total manufacturing employment will be neutral. Net jobs will be steady, or will increase, as manufacturing returns to the US from overseas.

Heartland is focused on manufacturing, but we classify their robots as service robots, and look forward to covering them here.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Willow Garage Milestone 2

Willow Garage PR-2 robot, in my estimation the most technologically sophisticated service robot (semi-humanoid) in the world, demonstrated it's stuff recently by navigating around a room and plugging itself into a wall plug.


Monday, May 25, 2009

Sunday, April 26, 2009

SME Coffee Break: Robots for Small Businesses

Referred by Frank at The Robot Report

Here is a fine video that describes an easy to program, easy to use industrial arm. Not quite the same as service robots, but it has some elements that are applicable to service robots.

"Tom and Michael, two stressed workers of an SME, dream of a robot helping them in their daily routine. One idea inspires the next ... until they come up to novel work environments and new and different types of robots, which will be explored in the project."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Race is On: Korea's $750 Million to Become Robotics Leader

From TMC Net:

SEOUL, Apr 18, 2009 (Asia Pulse Data Source via COMTEX) -- The government will spend 1 trillion won (US$750 million) on research and development in the robot sector over the next five years in an effort to develop the local industry into the world's top three, officials said Friday.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

News from Robobusiness 2009.

Here is an article highlighting Tandy Trower, who is a stalwart supporter of robotics:


RoboBusiness: Natural controls to spark robotics revolution

Manipulation and automation will be key drivers of the robotics market in the near future, according to keynote speakers at the RoboBusiness 2009 conference. Microsoft Corp. general manager Tandy Trower said the robotics market could take off like the personal computer market did after the graphical user interface was introduced -- if roboticists can get their products to manipulate objects safely and nimbly in a manner similar to human hands...


Robotics Market Size

Here's a nice view of potential size of the robot market...

Thursday, April 2, 2009

In-Person Review of Readybot

Pros: A unique approach to mobile service robots the yields a potential breakthrough in cost-to-performance and safety. Control paradigm could work for large-scale deployment. The first service robot design that seems commercially viable in the near term.

Cons: Still a prototype. Control software needs more testing and development.


When I first saw the Readybot design in the kitchen-cleaning videos, it seemed interesting but not very sophisticated…a boxy robot on wheels with two primitive arms attached. I was a bit more impressed after seeing the unit at the Robo-dev show last year. Then I got a call from a friend who had seen a live working demo of Readybot at the Homebrew Robotics Club in Silicon Valley…he said “wow…people were really excited, we’ve been waiting years for something like this to come along.”

So I called Readybot, and with a bit of persuasion, I was finally invited to their small office. I came away very impressed indeed. As a long-term advocate for robotics, it’s been a long hard wait for somebody to show me a new concept. Readybot gave me that new concept.

A Different “Take” on Mobile Robots

The most important thing about Readybot is that it’s intentionally simple. Other mobile manipulative robot projects use a traditional articulated robot arm attached to a mobile base. Or in other cases, they build a fully humanoid robot that attempts to mimic human form. These designs are attractive and sophisticated looking, but I have a hard time believing that they can be produced in a practical form for a low enough cost.

According to the builders, Readybot was designed from scratch just for mobile 2-armed service applications. The arms and the body act as a single system, useless without each other, but working together in a way that eliminates redundant joints and redundant cost. After seeing it I came away suspecting that the gold standard for the robotics industry – the 6 DOF articulated robot arm with shoulder pitch and yaw – may be redundant and unnecessarily complex on a mobile robot.

Also the device is quite plain. It’s a white box with 2 arms, more of a small home forklift than Rosie the Robot. Yet with this appliance-minimalist approach works well.

The version I saw was intended as a “trainer” unit, said the developers, which they hope is so simple that other robot builders will be able to clone it.

Goal: 1/10th the Cost

The team impressed on me that their overriding focus is on building a robot that is inexpensive. They believe that the only way to launch the future robotics industry and to create a tenfold increase in the size of the robot market is to create entry-level robots that can be purchased by small business and consumer uses

I’ve heard this kind of talk from other people. But the Readybot people make this speech while having at their sides a robot that actually does what they are talking about. It IS a cheap easy to use personal robot. That adds a certain weight to the argument.

There are 3 areas that I looked at in particular: Base mobility, arms, and control system.


The Readybot mobile base is a set of inexpensive gear motors hooked to industrial omni-wheels. It uses the Northstar sensor (Evolution Robotics) to determine location in the room, with infrared distance and ultrasonic sensors for fine-tuning and obstacle avoidance. It worked well in a set of 3 test rooms.

Of course this has none of the self navigation that is present in other mobile robot bases from firms such as Mobilerobots Inc. I asked how they could justify a mobile base that can’t navigate around obstacles. I got the following reasoning:

>>It's designed to be upgraded. The Readybot arm/body assembly could be removed and attached to a Mobile Robots Pioneer or Patrolbot bases, or other commonly available self-navigating bases. “If people want sophisticated SLAM then no problem, just upgrade the base” said Tom Benson, the product designer, “but let’s give them something cheap to get started with, that works in a simple environment.”

>>The collaborative cloud control system (which I describe below) gives robot programmers the ability to use the remote human operator as the “obstacle avoider of last resort.” Essentially the robot can switch to a tele-operated mode any time needed.

This gives a very good flavor of the overall design process for Readybot. They are willing to accept less autonomy in return for lower initial cost, but are architecting the system to allow later upgrades to autonomy if desired by the owner.

Cheap, Strong Arms and Base, Virtual Shoulder Joints

The Readybot robot has two arms that can carry about five pounds each (they said, upgradable to 10 pounds with a simple change in gear ratio). These arms are primitive by robotic standards, but again, very inexpensive. Benson said that the arms were the most important component in the whole project: “Two arms on a mobile base, that can reach table top height, are the key to the whole robotics field from now on. We were convinced of that from the start. The problem was to make them cheap and safe.”

The Readybot solution is clever. They are simple extendable linear arms on a rotating shoulders with a vertical lift (otherwise known as a cylindrical robot arms) mounted on each corner of the device, so the two arms have full access to the front, side, and rear of the robot.

Again these are much simpler than the more common articulated arms used in other designs. They have no shoulder joint and no elbow joint, which eliminates the most complex and expensive parts of the arm, and greatly increases the effective weight capacity. The lack of a shoulder and elbow joint creates significant reductions in arm dexterity however this is compensated by the mobile base, which has omni-wheels and can move side to side. This allows the mobile base to act as a “virtual shoulder joint” giving the robot additional range of motion to make up for the loss of the shoulder and elbow.

Intentionally Slow Moving, Imprecise, But Safer Joints

Most robotic designs have stiff, uncompromising, and tightly controlled joints which require powerful motors and gearboxes. They are designed that way intentionally in order to provide high speed, repetitive, and precise placement. This also makes them dangerous since the stiffness requires high-inertia gearboxes that give the robot a tremendous “punch.” Get in they way of a moving industrial robot and you may end up injured or dead.

The Readybot design abandons this entire concept. Their arms are slow moving, relatively sloppy, and in some planes of motion quite weak.

How can this possibly work? Benson’s comment was “a mobile robot that moves from place to place on wheels is inherently imprecise anyway. Trying to put precise arms on an imprecise base is misplaced effort and limits your design options”.

In the Readybot design, the joints that rotate, or swing the arm have almost no torque; only enough to free-swing the 5-lb lifted load. This makes them much safer. But if you want to open a door or push an obstacle aside, don’t you need some strength in the arm to do so? “Not in the swing axis” said Benson “in fact we’ve found in many cases the optimum solution is to allow the arm to swing completely free. Then we orient the robot facing diagonally to the door and pull with the linear extension part of the arm, which is quite strong. It pulls the door handle towards itself and the free swing of the rotating axis allows the door curvature to move freely as it is pulled.“

Collaborative Cloud

Their control software use what they call a "Collaborative Cloud", which is used to control the robot in day-to-day work.

This is a mixture of tele-operation and scripted behavior. The operating system and application platform for the robot is built with the assumption that the robot is connected to a broadband connection at all times. Via that connection, the robot communicates with a “cloud” of remote servers with scripting, set up data, and processing support. And more importantly the robot communicates with, and is controlled by, a “cloud” of human supervisors. What if that internet connection is broken? “The robot stops instantly”.

Benson says this was inspired by work at Nasa, CMU, Idaho National Labs, and a number of other places, all of whom have been working on different types of collaborative control and adjustable autonomy.

The plan is for human supervisors to control many robots at a time by using a customized library of script elements and routines to “build programming on the fly” as the robot works through its day. These supervisors could be on-site or in remote locations. For example a manufacturing facility might have 50 robots run by 4 operators in a local control center. Or 1000 robots taking care of elderly folks in their homes might be run by 100 contractors working from home.

Again, this cuts costs because most complex processing is offloaded to the cloud thus the robot needs little on-board processing. Instead of multiple “cores” on the robot, which is very common for other designs, this one uses a single computer.

Caveats and Quibbles

They made it clear that the system isn’t ready for commercial use yet; version 1 is a prototype, version 2 is under construction. The Readybot team has been working on a tight budget, so their design will continue to be less finished compared to others (for example Willow Garage, who as we’ve discussed earlier, has been generously funded and which I'm eager to see).

But for an old-timer like myself, these quibbles are beside the point. Readybot has a smart, determined team. They have made fundamental advances in cost-performance and control systems. At this early stage such cost reductions are crucial because they indicate that the service robotics market as a whole can be expected to follow the same cost-cutting trajectory of other successful high tech markets.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Another Japanese Service Robot, Looks Great

Wow. That's a good looking, practical looking unit. Professional finish, basically in same class as Willow Garage/ Readybot/ HarRobot.

The problem, as always, will be the control. So many of these vendors have a robot that appears to do the job but don't explain how they're going to control it in a realistic way.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Robo Business Show Boston April 15-16

Anyone who can make it, I would encourage to visit the Robo Business show April 15-16:

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Recession Makes Next-Generation Robotics Even More Important

I’ve recently read speculation that the depth of this recession and job losses will cause service robotics to lose a bit of steam. I don’t agree at all. I think it’s quite the opposite.

As Andy Grove used to point out, there are “strategic inflection points” where the old way of doing things starts to break down, and it’s important to not panic, and look for that path to convert the immediate crisis into that next big opportunity. Clearly the world economy is at a crisis point. We can either panic and collapse, or we can re-focus and aim ourselves at the next big opportunity as a society.

Service robotics is one of the key technologies that leads us to that next big opportunity. Some of the reasons I and others have mentioned many times:

>>Much of the crisis in the US, Europe, and Japan is intensified by the degradation of our manufacturing base, the aging of our population, and the increasing disparity between the highly technological and empowered training our citizens recieve and the mindless menial labor that is required in vast quantities in our economy. Robotics is the key to resolving these social problems.

>>With a recession like this, a lot of wealth has disappeared, and it’s more important than ever to look for cost cutting tools. Robotics is a cost-cutting tool with amazing untapped potential.

>>Robotics and other automation create jobs, because they help industries survive. Without robots, Detroit would have died even sooner.

President Obama has said we should “Innovate our way out of this”.

That’s exactly right. One of the reasons we pulled ourselves out of previous recessions in the 70s and 80s was that we had big technological revolutions that helped boost us out. I think the same thing could happen now, making the current recession much shorter. Yes, it’s a bad recession but we can pull out faster. So here are 4 key points:

1. Service robotics will be one of the key technologies that “leads the way” out of the current recession... an essential productivity tool and new technology infrastructure for the next 25 years

2. Service robotics will certainly be a crucial core technology for first-world nations like Japan, Europe, and the US if they have any intention of maintaining their leadership roles in 5-10 years when big demographic changes hit

3. It’s a known fact that robotics is the cornerstone of future national defense plans in an asymmetric world

4. So no matter how you slice it -- for very real reasons of national defense, the current recession, and our future as a technological leader -- robotics is and must be a top national priority for the US and other first-world nations

In modern society, the commercial sector serves as the great engine of innovation for all of society. That means we (especially in America) must push harder for robotics commercialization.
There are people lined up to start building new robot companies and make a profit. Help them succeed and we all succeed.

Robot-Cub -- Open Source Humanoid Robot

Here is a humanoid (walking, generally human-shaped) robot developed in Europe.

The team has posted their designs as an open-source project. The cost to build one is reportedly about 200,000 pounds (UK) which would translate into, let's say, a half-million dollars US.
Nice product for researchers, but at the high cost such humanoids invariably carry, probably not a lot of practical applications.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Want and Easy One-Stop Place to Keep Up With Robotics?

I recently saw a blog post that named The Robot Report as the best robot related resource on the web. I second that. Since the poster said it so much better than I could, I'll just be lazy and re-print the post here:

Before I founded RoboDynamics I spent a great deal of time researching the robotics field. Part of that research was of course scouring the web looking for companies, researchers, and other general information. If you've ever done this type of research, then you know that it is a tedious and time-consuming task. However, I just learned a great web resource that has arguably the largest number of (valid) links, broken down into general categories -

Here's a list of what I like about this website:
Unlike other similar lists, all links are valid and placed in the proper category.
News items that are generally in-depth and relevant.
Someone (or some team) that is committed to keeping the content relevant and fresh.