Guest Blog: RoboBusiness Conference Review

Originally posted by Michael E Stanley in The Embedded Beat on Nov 1, 2013

Last week I had the opportunity to present a tutorial on sensor fusion at the RoboBusiness Conference in Santa Clara.  It was my first time at RoboBusiness, and I thoroughly enjoyed attending sessions, wandering the show floor and talking with other attendees.  As you might guess, this conference is all about BUSINESS enabled by robotics.  Neat technology by itself is of only academic interest.  The attendees are interested in making MONEY.  The theme of this year’s show was “Invest, Innovate, Implement”.

One of my first destinations was to visit Baxter, developed by Rethink Robotics.  You might have read about Baxter in the IEEE Spectrum article “How Rethink Robotics Built Its New Baxter Robot Worker“.  Baxter represents a new breed of robot intended to work along side people.  If a human gets in Baxter’s way, he yields instead of knocking the dumb human on his or her keister.

It’s also easy to tell Baxter what you want to do.  Simply grip both sides of his “wrist” and Baxter’s arm enters a “weightless state”.  You simply move his arm where you want it to go and program waypoints via a number of buttons on his arm.  No computer needed.  I experimented with the weightless mode, and it really is easy to move him about.

MikeAndBaxter.jpgMike meets Baxter

Freescale had a booth on the show floor.  Immediately across from us was Velodyne. These are the folks that make the Lidar system you’ll see on top of the Google map cars that roam the nation.  Velodyne had one of their systems set up on the show floor, generating a real-time image of the surrounding area (see image below).  The system is responsive enough that you can clearly see people walking around the floor.  These same systems will be similar to those used in high-end robots for mapping and collision avoidance.

Veladyne.jpgVelodyne Lidar Display

I’ve seen telepresence robots at the last couple Consumer Electronics Shows that I’ve attended.  As you might expect, they were out in force at this event, courtesy of Robotics Trends and Suitable Technologies in the form of Beam robots (below).  At one point in the show, I found myself in a conversation with two other individuals, both attending via Beam.  One from India and another from the U.S. east coast.  There were no noticeable bandwidth or delay issues.  And my remote friends informed me that the Beams have multiple cameras, including one that enabled them to see my feet – so they would not bump into things.  With a top speed of over 3MPH, that’s a good thing!

IMG_20131023_174907.jpgBeam telepresence robots at their charging stations

One of the keynote sessions was entitled “Deploying 20 Autonomous Mobile Robots in a Hospital” by Aldo Zini of Aethon and Ken King of El Camino Hospital.  They mentioned that nurses spend, on average, 50% of their time on logistical and administrative tasks.  A lot of this time is spent dealing with the hospital supply chain: medication, supplies, food, linen and trash.  Delivery of these is complicated by the large size of the average hospital campus, variation in delivery size (a few pills versus a stack of clean linen) and the need for timely delivery.  The Aethon tug (shown below) can be customized for different tasks.  Some of the machines at El Camino deliver drugs, others handle linen, etc.  Because the machines are able to work 24/7/365, the hospital found that they needed less floor space devoted to “staging areas”, and could re-purpose that space for revenue generating purposes.

AethonTug.jpgThe Aethon Tug

Field robotics is another huge area of growth.  This might include field preparation, spraying for pests, herding, harvest automation and more. Autonomous Solutions, Inc. is one of the companies working in this space.  They offer kits to retrofit vehicles for remote use.

asirobotsDotCom.jpgASI Robotic Vehicle

Another interesting keynote was entitled “Big Data Meets Big Agriculture: UAV Solutions for Modern Farming” by Bandon Basso of 3D Robotics.  Brandon presented example data sets collected via UAVs that clearly identify variation in plant health across a farm’s growing area.  Because the UAVs are self-guided, a farmer can launch the vehicle and then go for coffee while data is collected.  The farmer can then make intelligent decisions with regard to where to fertilize, add/decrease water, etc.   Decreases in UAV costs as well as the ease of data analysis (which can now be done in an hour or two), mean that farmers now have the option to perform this type of analysis multiple times over the course of a single growing season.

I got a chance to play with a really interesting haptics demonstrator by Barrett Technology Inc. You grasp a ball at the end of a robot arm mounted on a tripod (below left).  Moving that ball in space causes a virtual ball on a computer screen (below right) to move about an enclosed “room”.  Each surface (4 walls, ceiling & floor) of the room are modeled as being composed of some different material.  For instance, the floor was grooved and the right wall as magnetic. When you “rolled” the ball across those surfaces, you could feel the interaction of those surfaces with the ball you held in your hand.

BarnettTechnolgy.jpgBarrett Technology haptics demonstrator

Robotic arms have been a staple of the industry for generations, and there was no shortage at RoboBusiness.  c-link Systems (not shown) actually shared space in Freescale’s booth.  Others shown below (from left to right) include ABB Robotics, Schunk, and Universal Robots.  ABB has a 43 page catalog of robot solutions, ranging from controllers, track systems, positioners, point robots and more.  Another company to look at in this space (again, not shown), is Synapticon.

abb.jpgRobot Arm from ABB Robotics

Schunk.jpgRobot Arm from Schunk

UniversalRobots.jpgRobot Arm from Universal Robots

The roving robot shown below was developed by Unbounded Robotics. That company was the winner of the PITCHFIRE event, where startup firms pitched their companies and products for the venture capital community.  Unbounded Robotics has a nice video of the UBR-1 robot in action, which you should definitely view.

UnboundedRobotics.jpgUnbounded Robotics UBR-1

The VEX Robotics Design System (below) brings the old erecter set into the 21st century, offering everything from complete robot kits to a-la-carte ordering of individual components.  Their products are tailored for STEM education, but will make even experienced engineers drool in anticipation.

Vex.jpgVex Robot Kits

As I mentioned earlier, this was my first RoboBusiness conference.  As a novice in the field, I came away with a number of lessons learned:

  • Robots have gone mainstream, affecting many more areas of the economy than just manufacturing.
  • The community seems to think that they’ve solved the navigation problem.  Autonomous UAVs can now navigate a pre-defined flight plan, avoiding unplanned obstacles on their own initiative, and even selecting their own landing sites.  Ground-based TUG robots can roam buildings on their own, with no major infrastructure to enable that navigation.  And SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) techniques have progressed to the point where one presenter was able to show a full three dimensional model of the Tower of Pisa that was generated in 20 minutes.
  • The Robot Operating System (ROS) is the dominant toolset used by the industry today, although other options are still in use.  ROS is also consistent with the concept of Cloud Robotics.
  • iRobot and ABB were two of the big players at the show.  Most of the other companies I saw were much smaller.  There is still a lot of innovation and entrepeneurship going on.
  • The industry DOES have an up to date, and detailed roadmap: A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics From Internet to Robotics, 2013 Edition
  • 50% of the pilots in training today will be drone pilots
  • The adoption of co-worker robots is leading to re-shoring of jobs.  That is, bringing jobs BACK to the U.S.
  • Some industries (particularly fast food) may face job losses as robotic technologies are adopted.
  • In 20 years, coast-to-coast air freight shipping will be unmanned in the U.S.
  • Take a few minutes to visit the website of the Robotics Virtual Organization
  • If you are interested in personal UAVs, visit http://diydrones.com/
  • Primesense and the Microsoft Kinect have revolutionized robot vision, navigation and mapping by dramatically lowering the cost of vision hardware.
  • ROS Industrial is extending ROS into industrial settings.

I arrived on site in Santa Clara around mid-day on Wednesday the 23rd of October and headed home about 4PM the following Friday.  Hopefully the information above gives you a rough idea of just how jam-packed the conference and show were with information.  A good time was had by all!

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