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Robot stomachs: powering machines with garbage and pee

The Seinfeld idiom, “worlds are colliding,” is probably the best description of work in the age of Corona. Pre-pandemic, it was easy to departmentalize one’s professional life from one’s home existence. Clearly, my dishpan hands have hindered my writing schedule. Thank goodness for the robots in my life, scrubbing and vacuuming my floors; if only they could power themselves with the crumbs they suck up.

The World Bank estimates that 3.5 million tons of solid waste is produced by humans everyday, with America accounting for more than 250 million tons a year or over 4 pounds of trash per citizen. This figure does not include the 34 billion gallons of human organic materials that is processed in water treatment centers across the country each year. To the fictional Dr. Emmett Brown, this garbage is akin to “black gold” – ecologically powering cities, cars, and machines. In reality, the movie, “Back to The Future II” was inspired by the biomass gasification movement of 20th century in powering cars with wood during World War II when petroleum was scarce. The technology has advanced so much that a few years ago the GENeco water treatment plant in the United Kingdom built a biomethane gas bus that relied solely on sewage. In reflecting on the importance of the technology, Collin Field of Bath Bus Company declared, “We will never, ever, ever, while we are on this planet, run out of human waste.”

Less than twenty miles away from the GENco plant, Professor Loannis Leropoulos of the University of Bristol’s Robotics Laboratory is working on the next generation of bio-engineered fuel cells. Last week, Dr. Leropoulos demonstrated his revolutionary Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs) for me. As witnessed, he is not just inspired by nature, but harnessing its beauty to power the next generation of robots. The MFCs mimic an animal’s stomach with microbes breaking down food to create adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The Bristol lab began building MFCs to power its suite of EcoBots. “I started this journey about twenty years ago with the main purpose of building sustainable autonomous robots for remote area access,” reflects Leropoulos. He was inspired by Dr. Stuart Wilkinson’s Gastrobot in the early 2000s that first promoted the idea of “an intelligent machine that digests real food for energy.” At the time the media hyped Wilkinson’s invention as a flesh-eating robot, when in reality it digested sugar cubes, turning the carbohydrates into electrical energy. Unfortunately, the Gastrobot’s clumsy oversized form factor suffered from long charging times with an 18-hour “carbo-loading” process for every 15 minutes of power.

Springboarding off of Wilkinson’s concept, Leropoulos’ team started with the idea of using MFC to power machines by putting the microbes directly inside the unit to more efficiently produce energy from any sugar-based substance, even waste (e.g., urine, feces, and trash). The Professor described the elegance of his technology that creates a “uniform colonization” of microbes multiplying every 8 minutes with parent lifecycles succeeded by daughter cells in a continuous pattern of ‘feed-growth-energy’. He compares it to the human microflora process of breaking down fresh food in the digestive system that results in healthy bathroom visits, “the same is with Microbial Fuel Cells as long as we continue feeding them, the MFCs will continue to generate electricity.” The Bristol professor boasts that batteries are better performing than anything on the market as biological lifeforms have no denigration since “the progeny keep refreshing the community or electrodes so we have stable levels of power.” By contrast, the most popular non-fossil fuel available, lithium, degrades over time and leads to destructive mining practices in scarring the Earth in search of declining ore resources with the explosion of mobile phones, portable devices, and electric vehicles.

While MFCs are still in their infancy, Leropoulos shared with me his plan for commercializing the invention. His lab recently announced the success of its MFCs prototypes in powering mobile phones, smart watches, and other devices (including the EcoBots). In addition, Leropoulos has pushed his team to miniaturize the size of his batteries from its 6″ prototype to smaller than a AA, while at the same time rivaling the performance of alkaline. Backed by the Gates foundation, he has also reduced the production costs from $18 to $1 a unit, this is before achieving the economies of scale with mass production. Today, his business plan has expanded beyond just autonomous robots to power smart homes, by connecting multiple MFCs to a house’s sanitation and waste systems. “Our research is all about optimizing miniaturization and stacking them with minimum losses so we can end up with a car battery-like shape and size that gives us the amount of power we require,” explains the professor. When I questioned Leropoulos about using MFCs in the future of autonomous fleets, and even to offset the high energy demands of something like bitcoin mining, he remarked, “It would be naive of me to say a straight yes, but this is of course the work we are doing. I strongly believe with the development of new materials that will help with the energy density. We are at a stage where we have done some groundbreaking research using 3D printed electric materials as a low cost scalable technology. There is a lot to say about the functionalization of the electrodes that enables colonization from the microbes in making sure all the progeny cells colonize and the ceramic separators that allows for target ion transfer that makes the whole operation smarter and more efficient.” In thinking more about his work, he declared, “We have yet to see the full potential of Microbial Fuel Cells. I do think one day we will have a ‘Back to the Future’ scenario, feeding your food scraps to your car,”

Pressing Leropoulos on how he envisions robot-charging stations working in a factory or home in the near future, he illustrated it best, “with a Roomba example its actually picking of food scraps in the kitchen that would be a very nutritious source of fuel for the Microbial Fuel Cell, but that’s a few steps down the line.” He continued, “a straightforward application for something like a Roomba is to leave the charging station where it is and connect it to the toilet or kitchen sink. The fuel cycle would be continuous as the robot would not be drawing energy from the house, but the wastewater.” Processing the impact of his vision, it took me back to the early days of the global pandemic shutdown with animals returning to ancient grazing areas and pollution clouds clearing over heavily populated areas with many seeing for the first time distant mountains and blue skies. Innovations like MFCs are part of a new wave of mechatronic environmentally-focused solutions. Before parting, I asked Leropoulos how hopeful is he about the environment, “I do feel optimistic, I have more faith in the the younger generation that they will do things better. The shock we sustained as a society [this past year] is a lesson in seeing the true color of our natural world, if we learn from this then I think the future is a good one.”

The Year Of The SPAC And What It Means For Hardware

CBS MarketWatch declared 2020: The Year of the SPAC (Special Purpose Acquisition Corporation). A record 219 companies went public through this fundraising vehicle that uses a reverse merger with an existing private business to create a publicly-listed entity. This accounted for more than $73 billion dollars of investment, providing private equity startups a new outlet to raise capital and provide shareholder liquidity. According to Goldman Sachs, the current trends represents a “year-over-year jump of 462% and outpacing traditional IPOs by $6 billion.” In response to the interest in SPACs, the Securities and Exchange Commission agreed last week to allow private companies to raise capital through direct listings, providing even more access to the public markets outside of Wall Street’s traditional institutional gatekeepers.

For the past few months the SPAC craze has spilled over to the robot and remote sensing industries. Just last week, SoftBank announced it is raising $525 million in a blind pool SPAC for investments in artificial intelligence. In the filing with the SEC, Softbank states, “For the past 40 years, SoftBank has invested ahead of major technology shifts. Now, we believe the AI revolution has arrived.” In 2017, SoftBank’s Chief Executive, Masayoshi Son (nicknamed Masa) predicted that by 2047, robots will outnumber humans on the planet with 10 billion small humanoids (like its own Pepper robot) rolling the streets. An outspoken believer in Singularity, Masa has not been shy about investing in the robotics sector with ownership stakes in Whiz, Pepper, Bear and Brain Corp. The company sold its interests in Boston Dynamics to Hyundai for a billion dollars earlier this month. When launching his own venture capital fund in 2018, Masa declared, “I am devoting 97% of my time and brain on AI.” This past month, Masa’s $100 billion Vision Fund had a huge portfolio win with the IPO of DoorDash, erasing earlier losses of failed investments in WeWork and OneWeb. In that spirit, it is not surprising that the SPAC filing exclaims: “COVID-19 has pulled this future forward by dramatically accelerating the adoption of digital services. During this time, we intersected with many compelling companies that wanted our support at IPO and beyond, but we lacked the vehicle to partner with them. This trend has only increased over the past year as more companies have decided to list publicly.”

SoftBank’s optimism is further validated by the success of SPACs in acquiring hardware sensor companies. Earlier this month, Ouster became the fifth LiDAR startup to go public through a SPAC this year. Already trading on the markets is Velodyne, Luminar, Innoviz, and Aeva. Each of these companies raised hundreds of millions of dollars at valuations exceeding a billion dollars. Some have fared well in the public markets, such as Luminar doubling its valuation in a few weeks. Others, like Velodyne, have had more difficulty. Velodyne’s shares fell by half since its listing in September (it is currently trading modestly above its initial price). As hardware is tough, staying private comes at the cost of founder dilution and overvaluation. SPACs offer startups and their investors quicker access to capital and greater liquidity, enabling investors to reinvest their returns in the autonomous sector and ultimately driving innovation in advance of greater adoption.

Recently, I caught up with Andrew Flett, General Partner of Mobility Impact Partners which raised $115 million for a new SPAC – Motion Acquisition Corp. (ticker symbol MOTNU). Flett’s investment vehicle is still on the hunt for an acquisition of “target businesses in connected vehicle industries globally, which include companies providing transportation software and cloud solutions for fleet management, freight and logistics, and mobile asset management applications.” When speaking with Flett, he described his inaugural experience in the space as follows, “This is the first SPAC I have been directly involved with but the mechanism has evolved and matured over the last couple of decades. They are popular now as a function of the same yield scarcity and immense liquidity that has been driving public equity speculation. There will be both highly speculative companies and companies with solid fundamentals in any wave of interest. This wave is no different.” He astutely points to previous SPAC upticks (since the 1980s) led by dubious underwriters that used the mechanism as a way to make a quick buck through “pump-and-dump” schemes. These market manipulators, many still serving jail time, quickly promoted stocks on the exchanges to only rapidly sell their own interests in the companies before other investors were legally able to trade the shares, ultimately devastating the startup’s and its shareholders’ values. This is compounded by the increased expenses and transparency of publicly traded listings, leaving startup founders ill prepared for their new role on the NASDAQ or NYSE.

Unlike the past, many of the newly formed SPACs have been managed by brand name investors such as Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic), Bill Ackman (Pershing Square) and Peter Thiel (Bridgetown). The performance of the newly listed SPAC 2020 crop has been very impressive, outpacing the S&P, with Draft Kings and Nikola leading the charge with triple digit returns. In nudging Flett for his opinion of these managers, he cautions, “Smart guys. Is it just a branding exercise or will they be involved in the asset evaluation and ultimate de-SPACed company? In the end, the asset needs to stand on its own and regardless of how it gets there (IPO, Direct Listing, SPAC), once public it is a pure apples to apples performance comparison dependent on strategy, management, and execution. If the public company does not benefit from their wisdom, it does not matter what brand is attached at the front end.”

Flett advises founders not to be too easily seduced by public capital, rather “focus on your company. If your company cannot absorb the responsibilities and overhead of being a public company, it is not the right option for you.” Gauging his view of Softbank’s latest announcement, “Like most Private Equity or institutional investors, it is simply a cash grab and an alternative vehicle to demonstrate their investing acumen. I prefer seeing Softbank doing reasonably sized SPACs than raising another misguided Vision Fund,” Flett optimistically opines. However, at the end of the day, the SPAC pioneer reminds us that the market is cyclical and the window of opportunity will eventually close, “As some of the speculative bets burn investors and yield alternatives appear, the SPAC market will slow.”

CES 2020: A smart city oasis

Like the city that hosts the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) there is a lot of noise on the show floor. Sifting through the lights, sounds and people can be an arduous task even for the most experienced CES attendees. Hidden past the North Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) is a walkway to a tech oasis housed in the Westgate Hotel. This new area hosting SmartCity/IoT innovations is reminiscent of the old Eureka Park complete with folding tables and ballroom carpeting. The fact that such enterprises require their own area separate from the main halls of the LVCC and the startup pavilions of the Sands Hotel is an indication of how urbanization is being redefined by artificial intelligence.

IMG_7974.JPGMany executives naively group AI into its own category with SmartCity inventions as a niche use case. However as Akio Toyoda, Chief Executive of Toyota, presented at CES it is the reverse. The “Woven City,” initiative by the car manufacturer illustrates that autonomous cars, IoT devices and intelligent robots are subservient to society and, hence, require their own “living laboratory”. Toyoda boldly described a novel construction project for a city of the future 60 miles from Tokyo, “With people, buildings and vehicles all connected and communicating with each other through data and sensors, we will be able to test AI technology, in both the virtual and the physical world, maximizing its potential. We want to turn artificial intelligence into intelligence amplified.” Woven City will include 2,000 residents (mostly existing and former employees) on a 175 mile acre site (formerly a Toyota factory) at the foothills of Mount Fuji, providing academics, scientists and inventors a real-life test environment.

Toyota has hired the Dutch architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) to design its urban biosphere. According to Bjarke Ingels, “Homes in the Woven City will serve as test sites for new technology, such as in-home robotics to assist with daily life. These smart homes will take advantage of full connectivity using sensor-based AI to do things automatically, like restocking your fridge, or taking out your trash — or even taking care of how healthy you are.” While construction is set to begin in 2021, the architect is already boasting: “In an age when technology, social media and online retail is replacing and eliminating our natural meeting places, the Woven City will explore ways to stimulate human interaction in the urban space. After all, human connectivity is the kind of connectivity that triggers wellbeing and happiness, productivity and innovation.”

IMG_7936.JPGWalking back into the LVCC from the Westgate, I heard Toyoda’s keynote in my head – “mobility for all” – forming a prism in which to view the rest of the show. Looking past Hyundai/Uber’s massive Air Taxi and Omron’s ping-pong playing robot; thousands of suited executives led me under LG’s television waterfall to the Central Hall. Hidden behind an out of place Delta Airlines lounge, I discovered a robotics startup already fulfilling aspects of the Woven City. Vancouver-based A&K Robotics displayed a proprietary autonomous mobility solution serving the ballooning geriatric population.  The U.S. Census Bureau projects that citizens over the ages of 65 will double from “52 million in 2018 to 95 million by 2060” (or close to a quarter of the country’s population). This statistic parallels other global demographic trends for most first world countries. In Japan, the current population of elderly already exceeds 28% of its citizenry, with more than 70,000 over the age of 100. When A&K first launched its company it marketed conversion kits for turning manual industrial machines into autonomous vehicles. Today, the Canadian team is applying its passion for unmanned systems to improve the lives of the most vulnerable – people with disabilities. As Jessica Yip, A&K COO, explains, “When we founded the company we set out to develop and prove our technology first in industrial environments moving large cleaning machines that have to be accurate because of their sheer size. Now we’re applying this proven system to working with people who face mobility challenges.” The company plans to initially sell its elegant self-driving wheelchair (shown below) to airports, a $2 billion opportunity serving 63 million passengers worldwide.

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In the United States the federal government mandates that airlines provide ‘free, prompt wheelchair assistance between curbside and cabin seat’ as part of the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act. Since passing the bill, airport wheelchair assistance has mushroomed to an almost unserviceable rate as carriers struggle to fulfill the mandated free service. In reviewing the airlines performance Eric Lipp, of the disability advocacy group Open Doors, complains, “Ninety percent of the wheelchair problems exist because there’s no money in it. I’m not 100% convinced that airline executives are really willing to pay for this service.” In balancing profits with accessibility, airlines have employed unskilled, underpaid workers to push disabled fliers to their seats. A&K’s solution has the potential of both liberating passengers and improving the airlines’ bottomline performance. Yip contends, “We’re embarking on moving people, starting in airports to help make traveling long distances more enjoyable and empowering.”

ANA-wheelchair-trials.jpgA&K joins a growing fleet of technology companies in tackling the airport mobility issue. Starting in 2017, Panasonic partnered with All Nippon Airways (ANA) to pilot self-driving wheelchairs in Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. As Juichi Hirasawa, Senior Vice President of ANA, states: “ANA’s partnership with Panasonic will make Narita Airport more welcoming and accessible, both of which are crucial to maintaining the airport’s status as a hub for international travel in the years to come. The robotic wheelchairs are just the latest element in ANA’s multi-faceted approach to improving hospitality in the air and on the ground.” Last December, the Abu Dhabi International Airport publicly demonstrated for a week autonomous wheelchairs manufactured by US-based WHILL. Ahmed Al Shamisi, Acting Chief Operations Officer of Abu Dhabi Airports, asserted: “Convenience is one of the most important factors in the traveller experience today. We want to make it even easier for passengers to enjoy our airports with ease. Through these trials, we have shown that restricted mobility passengers and their families can enjoy greater freedom of movement while still ensuring that the technology can be used safely and securely in our facilities.” Takeshi Ueda of WHILL enthusiastically added, “Seeing individuals experience the benefits of the seamless travel experience from security to boarding is so rewarding, and we are eager to translate this experience to airports across the globe.”

At the end of Toyoda’s remarks, he joked, “So by now, you may be thinking has this guy lost his mind? Is he a Japanese version of Willie Wonka?” As laughter permeated the theater, he excitedly confessed, “Perhaps, but I truly believe that THIS is the project that can benefit everyone, not just Toyota.” As I flew home, I left Vegas more encouraged about the future, entrepreneurs today are focused on something bigger than robots. In the words of Yip, “As a company we’re looking to serve all people, and are strategically focused on airports as a step towards smart cities where everyone has the opportunity to participate fully in society in whatever way they are interested. Regardless of age, physical challenges, or other, we want people to be able to get out of their homes and into their communities. To be able to see each other, interact, go to work or travel whenever they want to.”

Sign up today for next RobotLab event forum on Automating Farming: From The Holy Land To The Golden State, February 6th in New York City. 

 

The 5G report card: Building today’s smart IoT ecosystem

The elephant in the room loomed large two weeks ago at the inaugural Internet of Things Consortium (IoTC) Summit in New York City. Almost every presentation began apologetically with the refrain, “In a 5G world” practically challenging the industry’s rollout goals. At one point Brigitte Daniel-Corbin, IoT Strategist with Wilco Electronic Systems, sensed the need to reassure the audience by exclaiming, ‘its not a matter of if, but when 5G will happen!’ Frontier Tech pundits too often prematurely predict hyperbolic adoption cycles, falling into the trap of most soothsaying visions. The IoTC Summit’s ability to pull back the curtain left its audience empowered with a sober roadmap forward that will ultimately drive greater innovation and profit.

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The industry frustration is understandable as China announced earlier this month that 5G is now commercially available in 50 cities, including: Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. In fact, the communist state beat its own 2020 objectives by rolling out the technology months ahead of plan. Already more than 10 million cellular customers have signed up for the service. China has made upgrading its cellular communications a national priority with more than 86,000 5G base stations installed to date and another 130,000 5G base stations to go live by the end of the year. In the words of Wang Xiaochu, president of China Unicom, “The commercialization of 5G technology is a great measure of [President] Xi Jinping’s strategic aim of turning China into a cyber power, as well as an important milestone in China’s information communication industry development.” By contrast the United States is still testing the technology in a number of urban zones. If a recent PC Magazine review of Verizon’s Chicago pilot is any indication of the state of the technology, the United States is very far from catching up. As one reporter complains, “I walked around for three hours and found that coverage is very spotty.” Screen Shot 2019-11-15 at 2.40.07 PM.png

Last year, President Trump donning a hardhat declared “My administration is focused on freeing up as much wireless spectrum as needed [to make 5G possible].” The importance of Trump’s promotional event in April could not be more understated, as so much of the future of autonomous driving, additive manufacturing, collaborative robotics, shipping & logistics, smart city infrastructure, Internet of Things (IoT), and virtual & augmented reality relies on greater bandwidth. Most experts predict that 5G will offer a 10 to 100 times improvement over fourth generation wireless. Els Baert of NetComm explains, “The main advantage that 5G offers over 4G LTE is faster speeds — primarily because there will be more spectrum available for 5G, and it uses more advanced radio technology. It will also deliver much lower latency than 4G, which will enable new applications in the [Internet of Things] space.” Unfortunately, since Trump’s photo op, the relationship with China has worsened so much that US carriers are now blocked from doing business with the largest supplier of 5G equipment, Huawei. This leaves the United States with only a handful of suppliers, including market leaders Nokia and Ericsson. The limited supply chain is exasperated by how little America is spending on upgrading its telecommunications, according to Deloitte “we conclude that the United States underspent China in wireless infrastructure by $8 billion to $10 billion per year since 2015.”

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The current state of the technology (roadblocks and all) demands fostering an innovation ecosystem today that parallels the explosion of new services for the 5G economy. As McKinsey reports there are more than 25 billion connected IoT devices currently, which is estimated to grow to more than 75 billion by 2025 with the advent of fifth generation wireless. The study further cites, “General Electric projects that IoT will add $10 to $15 trillion to a worldwide Global Domestic Product (GDP) growth by 2030. To put that into perspective, that number is equivalent to China’s entire current economy.” Regrettably, most of the available 5G accelerators in the USA are built to showcase virtual and augmented reality instead of fostering applications for the larger opportunity of business-to-business services. According to Business Insider “IoT solutions will reach $6 trillion by 2021,” across a wide spectrum of industries, including: healthcare, manufacturing, logistics, energy, smart homes, transportation and urban development. In fact, hardware will only account for about one-third of the new revenues (and VR/AR headsets comprise considerably less).

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It is challenging for publicly traded companies (like T-Mobile, Verizon & AT&T), whose stock performance is so linked to the future of next generation wireless. Clearly, market makers are overly excited by the unicorns of Oculus (acquired by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014) and Magic Leap (valued at $4.5 billion in 2016) more than IoT sensors for robotic recycling, agricultural drones, and fuel efficient rectors. However, based upon the available data, the killer app for 5G will be found in industry not digital theatrics. This focus on theatrics is illustrated in one of the few statements online by Verizon’s Christian Guirnalda, Director of its 5G Labs, boasting “We’re literally making holograms here using a dozen of different cameras in a volumetric capture studio to create near real-time images of what people and products look like in 3D.” A few miles north of Verizon 5G Labs, New York City’s hospitals are overcrowded with patients and data leading to physical and virtual latency issues. Verizon could enable New York’s hospitals with faster network speeds to treat more patients in economically challenged neighborhoods remotely. Already, 5G threatens to exasperate the digital divide in the United States by targeting affluent communities for its initial rollout. By investing in more high-speed telemedicine applications, the telecommunications giant could potentially enable less privileged patients access to better care, which validates the need for increased government spending. Guirnalda’s Lab would be better served by applying the promise of 5G to solve these real-life urban challenges from mass transit to food scarcity to access to healthcare.

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The drawback with most corporate 5G incubators is their windows are opaque – forcing inventors to experiment inside, while the real laboratory is bustling outside. The United Nations estimates by 2050 seventy percent of the world’s population will be urban. While most of this growth will take place in developing countries (i.e., Africa and Asia) already 80% of global GDP is generated in cities. The greatest challenge for the 21st century will be managing the sustainable development of these populations. At last month’s UN “World Cities Day,” the diplomatic body stated that 5G “big data technologies and cloud-computing offer the potential to enhance urban operations, functions, services, designs, strategies and policies.” The UN’s statement did not fall on deaf ears, even President Trump strained to comfort his constituents last month with the confession, “I asked Tim Cook to see if he could get Apple involved in building 5G in the U.S. They have it all – Money, Technology, Vision & Cook!”

Going to CES? Join me for my panel on Retail Robotics January 8th at 10am, Las Vegas Convention Center. 

The DARPA SubT Challenge: A robot triathlon

One of the biggest urban legends growing up in New York City were rumors about alligators living in the sewers. This myth even inspired a popular children’s book called “The Great Escape: Or, The Sewer Story,” with illustrations of reptiles crawling out of apartment toilets. To this day, city dwellers anxiously look at manholes wondering what lurks below. This curiosity was shared last month by the US Defense Department with its appeal for access to commercial underground complexes.

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The US military’s research arm, DARPA, launched the Subterranean (or SubT) Challenge in 2017 with the expressed goal of developing systems that enhance “situational awareness capabilities” for underground missions. While the prospect of armies utilizing machines to patrol sunken complexes conjures up images of the Matrix, in reality one of the last frontiers to be explored on Earth is below the surface. As SubT moves closer to its culminating event planned for 2021, the agency is beginning the first phase of three planned real-world tests. According to the contest description the initial focus area will be “human-made tunnel systems,” followed by “underground urban environments such as mass transit and municipal infrastructure,” and then concluding with “naturally occurring cave networks.” This summer DARPA issued a Request For Information for subsurface infrastructure in the interest of “global security and disaster-related search and rescue missions.”

Competing technologists will have the chance to win $2 million for hardware inventions and $750,000 for software innovations that “disruptively and positively impact how the underground domain is leveraged.” The types of solutions being considered include platforms “to rapidly map, navigate, and search unknown complex subterranean environments to locate objects of interest.” In further explaining the objectives, Timothy Chung, DARPA program manager, said: “One of the main limitations facing warfighters and emergency responders in subterranean environments is a lack of situational awareness; we often don’t know what lies beneath.” Chung’s boss, Fred Kennedy, Director of the Tactical Technology Office, confirmed, “We’ve reached a crucial point where advances in robotics, autonomy, and even biological systems could permit us to explore and exploit underground environments that are too dangerous for humans. Instead of avoiding caves and tunnels, we can use surrogates to map and assess their suitability for use.” Kennedy even coined a catch phrase for the challenge – “making the inaccessible accessible.” 

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In an abandoned Pennsylvania coal mine, on a sweltering August afternoon, eleven teams from across the globe came with 64 terrestrial robots, 20 unmanned aerial vehicles and one autonomous blimp to compete in the first wave of the SubT Challenge. The course included four events each lasting an hour deep inside the mine, which was originally built by the Pittsburgh Coal Company in 1910. Each team’s fleet of machines had to autonomously locate, identify and record 20 items or artifacts. The only team to score in double digits in all four independent runs was Explorer of Carnegie Mellon University. CMU is a DARPA Challenge favorite with a winning record that includes the 2007 Urban Challenge and 2015 Robotics Challenge. This year it had the distinct advantage of being local, scouting out the location beforehand to better plan its tactics for live competition. As Courtney Linder of Popular Mechanics writes, “Explorer regularly practiced at the Tour-Ed Mine in Tarentum, which is normally only frequented by tourists who want to check out a coal mine formerly owned by Allegheny Steel. They periodically flew drones and watched their ground robots exploring the cavernous, maze-like depths.”

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The biggest hurdles for teams competing below ground are the lack of Global Position System (GPS) signals and WIFI communications. To safely navigate the cavernous course of these GPS-denied environments, SubT machines had to rely solely on a fusion of on-board sensors, including: LIDAR, cameras and radar. In explaining how his team won to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, CMU lead, Sebastian Scherer said they employed up to eight robots that created its own WIFI network to “talk” to each other while simultaneously mapping the environment with its sensors. Deploying a swarm approach, the robots acted as a collective unit working together to fill in data gaps, which meant that even if one went offline it was still able to pilot using its onboard systems and previously downloaded maps. Leading up to the competition the CMU team utilized computer simulations to strategize its approach, but understood the limitations of exclusively planning in the virtual world. As Scherer’s collaborator, Matt Travers, explains, “Our system may work perfectly in simulation and the first time we deploy, we may take the exact same software from the simulation and put it in the robot and it drives right into a wall and you go figure out why.” CMU’s geographic proximity to the test site seemingly played a critical role in their team achieving high scores.

While Explorer walked off with some nominal prize money, all eleven teams are committed to the same goal of full autonomy regardless of the environment and manual input. As Travers exclaims, “We’d like to build a system that’s going to be agnostic to the types of mobility challenges that we’ll face. And this is certainly a difficult thing to do.” Reflecting on the August gathering, the creativity of invention unified a global community towards a single purpose of saving lives. In the words of the program’s organizer, Chung, “We are inspired by the need to conduct search and rescue missions in a variety of underground environments, whether in response to an incident in a highly populated area, a natural disaster, or for mine rescue.” The next round will take place in February quite possibly in the sewers of New York City (alligators and all). As Chung cautions the contestants, “Prepare for a few new surprises. The SubT Challenge could be compared to a triathlon. DARPA is not looking just for the strongest swimmer, runner, or cyclist, but rather integrated solutions that can do all three.”

Summer travel diary: Reopening cold cases with robotic data discoveries

Traveling to six countries in eighteen days, I journeyed with the goal of delving deeper into the roots of my family before World War II. As a child of refugees, my parents’ narrative is missing huge gaps of information. Still, more than seventy-eight years since the disappearance of my Grandmother and Uncles, we can only presume with a degree of certainty their demise in the mass graves of the forest outside of Riga, Latvia. In our data rich world, archivists are finally piecing together new clues of history using unmanned systems to reopen cold cases.

The Nazis were masters in using technology to mechanize killing and erasing all evidence of their crime. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Treblinka, Poland. The death camp exterminated close to 900,000 Jews over a 15-month period before a revolt led to its dismantlement in 1943. Only a Holocaust memorial stands today on the site of the former gas chamber as a testimony to the memory of the victims. Recently, scientists have begun to unearth new forensic evidence of the Third Reich’s war crimes using LIDAR to expose the full extent of their death factory.

In her work, “Holocaust Archeologies: Approaches and Future Directions,” Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls undertook an eight-year project to piece together archeological facts from survivor accounts using remote sensors that are more commonly associated with autonomous vehicles and robots than Holocaust studies. As she explains, “I saw working at Treblinka as a cold case where excavation is not permitted, desirable or wanted, [non-invasive] tools offer the possibility to record and examine topographies of atrocity in such a way that the disturbance of the ground is avoided.” Stitching together point cloud outputs from aerial LIDAR sensors, Professor Sturdy Colls stripped away the post-Holocaust vegetation to expose the camp’s original foundations, “revealing the bare earth of the former camp area.” As she writes, “One of the key advantages that LIDAR offers over other remote sensing technologies is its ability to propagate the signal emitted through vegetation such as trees. This means that it is possible to record features that are otherwise invisible or inaccessible using ground-based survey methods.”

Through her research, Sturdy Colls was able to locate several previously unmarked mass graves, transport infrastructure and camp-era buildings, including structures associated with the 1943 prisoner revolt. She credits the technology for her findings, “This is mainly due to developments in remote sensing technologies, geophysics, geographical information systems (GIS) and digital archeology, alongside a greater appreciation of systematic search strategies and landscape profiling,” The researcher stressed the importance of finding closure after seventy-five years, “I work with families in forensics work, and I can’t imagine what it’s like not to know what happened to your family members.” Sturdy Colls’ techniques are now being deployed across Europe at other concentration camp sites and places of mass murder.

Flying north from Poland, I landed in the Netherlands city of Amsterdam to take part in their year-long celebration of Rembrandt (350 years since his passing). At the Rijksmuseum’s Hall of Honors a robot is featured in front of the old master’s monumental work, “Night Watch.” The autonomous macro X-ray fluorescence scanner (Macro-XRF scanner) is busy analyzing the chemical makeup of the paint layers to map and database the age of the pigments. This project, aptly named “Operation Night Watch,” can be experienced live or online showcasing a suite of technologies to determine the best methodologies to return the 1642 painting back to its original glory. Night Watch has a long history of abuse including: two world wars, multiple knifings, one acid attack, botched conservation attempts, and even the trimming of the canvas in 1715 to fit a smaller space. In fact, its modern name is really a moniker of the dirt build up over the years, not the Master’s composition initially entitled: “Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq.”

In explaining the multi-million dollar undertaking the museum’s director, Taco Dibbits, boasted in a recent interview that Operation Night Watch will be the Rijksmuseum’s “biggest conservation and research project ever.” Currently, the Macro-XRF robot takes 24 hours to perform one scan of the entire picture, with a demanding schedule ahead of 56 more scans and 12,500 high-resolution images. The entire project is slated to be completed within a couple of years. Dibbits explains that the restoration will provide insights previously unknown about the painter and his magnum opus: “You will be able to see much more detail, and there will be areas of the painting that will be much easier to read. There are many mysteries of the painting that we might solve. We actually don’t know much about how Rembrandt painted it. With the last conservation, the techniques were limited to basically X-ray photos and now we have so many more tools. We will be able to look into the creative mind of one of the most brilliant artists in the world.”

Whether it is celebrating the narrative of great works of art or preserving the memory of the Holocaust, modern conservatism relies heavily on the accessibility of affordable mechatronic devices. Anna Lopuska, a conservator at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in Poland, describes the Museum’s herculean task, “We are doing something against the initial idea of the Nazis who built this camp. They didn’t want it to last. We’re making it last.” New advances in optics and hardware, enables Lopuska’s team to catalog and maintain the massive camp site with “minimum intervention.” The magnitude of its preservation efforts is listed on its website, which includes: “155 buildings (including original camp blocks, barracks, and outbuildings), some 300 ruins and other vestiges of the camp—including the ruins of the four gas chambers and crematoria at the Auschwitz II-Birkenau site that are of particular historical significance—as well as more than 13 km of fencing, 3,600 concrete fence posts, and many other installations.” This is on top of a collection of artifacts of human tragedy, as each item represents a person, such as “110 thousand shoes, about 3,800 suitcases, 12 thousand pots and pans, 40 kg of eyeglasses, 470 prostheses, 570 items of camp clothing, as well as 4,500 works of art.” Every year more and more survivors pass away making Lopuska’s task, and the unmanned systems she employs, more critical. As the conservationist reminds us, “Within 20 years, there will be only these objects speaking for this place.”

Editor’s Announcements: 1) Vote for our panel, “Love In The Robotic Age,” at SXSW; 2) Signup to attend RobotLab’s next event “Is Today’s Industry 4.0 A Hackers Paradise?” with  Chuck Brooks of General Dynamics on September 25th at 6pm, RSVP Today! 

Robots can play key roles in repairing our infrastructure

Pipeline inspection robot

I was on the phone recently with a large multinational corporate investor discussing the applications for robotics in the energy market. He expressed his frustration about the lack of products to inspect and repair active oil and gas pipelines, citing too many catastrophic accidents. His point was further endorsed by a Huffington Post article that reported in a twenty-year period such tragedies have led to 534 deaths, more than 2,400 injuries, and more than $7.5 billion in damages. The study concluded that an incident occurs every 30 hours across America’s vast transcontinental pipelines.

The global market for pipeline inspection robots is estimated to exceed $2 billion in the next six years, more than tripling today’s $600 million in sales. The Zion Market Research report states: “Robots are being used increasingly in various verticals in order to reduce human intervention from work environments that are dangerous … Pipeline networks are laid down for the transportation of oil and gas, drinking waters, etc. These pipelines face the problem of corrosion, aging, cracks, and various other types of damages…. As the demand for oil and gas is increasing across the globe, it is expected that the pipeline network will increase in length in the near future thereby increasing the popularity of the in-pipe inspection robots market.”

Industry consolidation plays key role

Another big indicator of this burgeoning industry is growth of consolidation. Starting in December 2017, Pure Technologies was purchased by New York-based Xylem for more than $500 million. Xylem was already a leader in smart technology solutions for water and waste management pump facilities. Its acquisition of Pure enabled the industrial company to expand its footprint into the oil and gas market. Utilizing Pure’s digital inspection expertise with mechatronics, the combined companies are able to take a leading position in pipeline diagnostics.

Patrick Decker, Xylem president and chief executive, explained, “Pure’s solutions strongly complement the broader Xylem portfolio, particularly our recently acquired Visenti and Sensus solutions, creating a unique and disruptive platform of diagnostic, analytics and optimization solutions for clean and wastewater networks. Pure will also bring greater scale to our growing data analytics and software-as-a-service capabilities.”

According to estimates at the time of the merger, almost 25% of Pure’s business was in the oil and gas industry. Today, Pure offers a suite of products for above ground and inline inspections, as well as data management software. In addition to selling its machines, sensors and analytics to the energy sector, it has successfully deployed units in thousands of waterways globally.

This past February, Eddyfi (a leading provider of testing equipment) acquired Inuktun, a robot manufacturer of semi-autonomous crawling systems. This was the sixth acquisition by fast growing Eddyfi in less than three years. As Martin Thériault, Eddyfi’s CEO, elaborates: “We are making a significant bet that the combination of Inuktun robots with our sensors and instruments will meet the increasing needs from asset owners. Customers can now select from a range of standard Inuktun crawlers, cameras and controllers to create their own off-the-shelf, yet customized, solutions.”

Colin Dobell, president of Inuktun, echoed Thériault sentiments, “This transaction links us with one of the best! Our systems and technology are suitable to many of Eddyfi Technologies’ current customers and the combination of the two companies will strengthen our position as an industry leader and allow us to offer truly unique solutions by combining some of the industry’s best NDT [Non Destructive Testing] products with our mobile robotic solutions. The future opportunities are seemingly endless. It’s very exciting.” In addition to Xylem and Eddyfi, other entrees into this space, include: CUES, Envirosight, GE Inspection Robotics, IBAK Helmut Hunger, Medit (Fiberscope), RedZone Robotics, MISTRAS Group, RIEZLER Inspektions Systeme, and Honeybee Robotics.

Repairing lines with micro-robots

While most of the current technologies focus on inspection, the bigger opportunity could be in actively repairing pipelines with micro-bots. Last year, the government of the United Kingdom began a $35 million study with six universities to develop mechanical insect-like robots to automatically fix its large underground network. According to the government’s press release, the goal is to develop robots of one centimeter in size that will crawl, swim and quite possibly fly through water, gas and sewage pipes. The government estimates that underground infrastructure accounts for $6 billion annually in labor and business disruption costs.

One of the institutions charged with this endeavor is the University of Sheffield’s Department of Mechanical Engineering led by Professor Kirill Horoshenkov. Dr. Horoshenkov boasts that his mission is more than commercial as “Maintaining a safe and secure water and energy supply is fundamental for society but faces many challenges such as increased customer demand and climate change.”

Horoshenkov, a leader in acoustical technology, expands further on the research objectives of his team, “Our new research programme will help utility companies monitor hidden pipe infrastructure and solve problems quickly and efficiently when they arise. This will mean less disruption for traffic and general public. This innovation will be the first of its kind to deploy swarms of miniaturised robots in buried pipes together with other emerging in-pipe sensor, navigation and communication solutions with long-term autonomy.”

England is becoming a hotbed for robotic insects; last summer Rolls-Royce shared with reporters its efforts in developing mechanical bugs to repair airplane engines. The engineers at the British aerospace giant were inspired by the research of Harvard professor Robert Wood with its ambulatory microrobot for search and rescue missions. James Kell of Rolls-Royce proclaims this could be a game changer, “They could go off scuttling around reaching all different parts of the combustion chamber. If we did it conventionally it would take us five hours; with these little robots, who knows, it might take five minutes.”

Currently the Harvard robot is too large to buzz through jet engines, but Rolls-Royce is not waiting for Boston’s scientist as it has established with the University of Nottingham a Centre for Manufacturing and On-Wing Technologies “to design and build a range of bespoke prototype robots capable of performing jet engine repairs remotely.” The project lead Dragos Axinte is optimistic about the spillover effect of this work into the energy market, “The emergence of robots capable of replicating human interventions on industrial equipment can be coupled with remote control strategies to reduce the response time from several days to a few hours. As well as with any Rolls-Royce engine, our robots could one day be used in other industries such as oil, gas and nuclear.”

Tackling sustainability and urbanization with AI-enabled furniture

At the turn of the twentieth century, the swelling populations of newly arrived immigrants in New York City’s Lower East Side reached a boiling point, forcing the City to pass the 1901 Tenement House Act. Recalling this legislation, New York City’s Mayor’s Office recently responded to its own modern housing crisis by enabling developers for the first time to build affordable micro-studio apartments of 400 square feet. One of the primary drivers of allocating tens of thousands of new micro-units is the adoption of innovative design and construction technologies that enable modular and flexible housing options. As Mayor de Blasio affirmed, “Housing New York 2.0 commits us to creating 25,000 affordable homes a year and 300,000 homes by 2026. Making New York a fairer city for today and for future generations depends on it.”

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Urban space density is not just a New York City problem, but a world health concern. According to the United Nations, more than half of the Earth’s population currently resides in cities and this is projected to climb to close to three-quarters by 2050. In response to this alarming trend the UN drafted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Stressing the importance of such an effort, UN Deputy Secretary Amina J. Mohammed declared, “It is clear that it is in cities where the battle for sustainability will be won or lost. Cities are the organizing mechanisms of the twenty-first century. They are where young people in all parts of the world flock to develop new skills, attain new jobs, and find opportunities in which to innovate and create their futuresThe 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is the most ambitious agenda ever set forth for humanity.”

Absent from the UN study is utilizing mechatronics to address the challenges of urbanization. For example, robots have been deployed on construction sites in China to rapidly print building materials. There are also a handful of companies utilizing machines to cost effectively produce modular homes with the goal of replacing mud-huts and sheet metal shanties. However, the progress of automating low-to-middle income housing has been slow going until this week. Ikea, the world’s largest furniture retailer which specializes in low cost decorating solutions, announced on Tuesday the launch of Rognan – a morphing robotic furniture system for the micro-home. Collaborating with the Swedish design powerhouse is hardware startup, Ori Living. The MIT spin-out first introduced its chameleon-changing furniture platform two years ago with an expandable wardrobe that quickly shifted from bookcase/home office to walk-in closet at the touch of a button. Today such systems can be bought through the company’s website for a price upwards of $5,000. It is expected that the partnership with IKEA will bring enormous economies of scale with the mass production of its products.

The first markets targeted by IKEA next year for Rognan are the cramped neighborhoods of Hong Kong and Japan, where the average citizen lives in 160 square feet. Seana Strawn, IKEA’s product developer for new innovations, explains “Instead of making the furniture smaller, we transform the furniture to the function that you need at that time When you sleep, you do not need your sofa. When you use your wardrobe, you do not need your bed etc.”

Ori founder, Hasier Larrea, elaborates on his use of machine learning to size the space to the occupants requirements. “Every floor is different, so you need a product that’s smart enough to know this, and make a map of the floor,” describes Larrea. By using sensors to create an image of the space, the robot seamlessly transforms from closet-to-bed-to-desk-to-media center. To better understand the marketability of such a system, I polled a close friend who analyzes such innovations for a large Wall Street bank. This potential customer remarked that he will wait to purchase his own Rognan until it can anticipate his living habits, automatically sense when it is time for work, play or bed.

Ori’s philosophy is enabling people to “live large in a small footprint.” Larrea professes that the only way to combat urbanization is thinking differently. As the founder exclaims, “We cannot keep designing spaces the same way we’ve been designing spaces 20 years ago, or keep using all the same furniture we were using in homes that were twice the size, or three times the size. We need to start thinking about furniture that adapts to us, and not the other way around.” Larrea’s credo can be heard in the words of former Tesla technologist Sankarshan Murthy who aims to revolutionize interior design with robotic ceiling dropping storage furniture. Murthy’s startup, Bubblebee Spaces, made news last April with the announcement of a $4.3 million funding round led by Loup Ventures. Similar to a Broadway set change, Bubblebee lowers and hoists up wooden cases on an as needed basis, complete with an iPhone or iPad controller. “Instead of square feet you start looking at real estate in volume. You are already paying for all this air and ceiling space you are not using. We unlock that for you,” brags Murthy. Ori is also working on a modern Murphy Bed that lowers from ceiling, as the company’s press release stated last November its newest product, “a bed that seamlessly lowers from the ceiling, or lifts to the ceiling to reveal a stylish sofa”  all at the beckon of one’s Alexa device.

In 1912, William Murphy received his patent for the “Disappearing Bed. Today’s robotic furniture, now validated by the likes of Ikea, could be the continuation of his vision. Several years ago, MIT student Daniel Leithinger first unveiled a shape shifting table. As Leithinger reminisces, “We were inspired by those pinscreen toys where you press your hand on one end, and it shows on the other side.” While it was never intended to be commercialized, the inventor was blown away by the emails he received. “One person said we should apply it to musical interfaces and another person said it would be great to use to help blind children understand art and other things. These are things we didn’t even think about,” shares Leithinger. As Ori and Bubblebee are working diligently to replace old couch springs for new gears and actuators, the benefits of such technology are sure to go beyond just better storage as we enter the new age of the AI Home.

 

Are ethics keeping pace with technology?

Drone delivery. Credit: Wing

Returning from vacation, my inbox overflowed with emails announcing robot “firsts.” At the same time, my relaxed post-vacation disposition was quickly rocked by the news of the day and recent discussions regarding the extent of AI bias within New York’s financial system. These unrelated incidents are very much connected in representing the paradox of the acceleration of today’s inventions.

Last Friday, The University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) became the first hospital system to safely transport, via drone, a live organ to a waiting transplant patient with kidney failure. The demonstration illustrates the huge opportunity of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to significantly reduce the time, costs, and outcome of organ transplants by removing human-piloted helicopters from the equation. As Dr. Joseph Scalea, UMMC project lead, explains “There remains a woeful disparity between the number of recipients on the organ transplant waiting list and the total number of transplantable organs. This new technology has the potential to help widen the donor organ pool and access to transplantation.” Last year, America’s managing body of the organ transplant system stated it had a waiting list of approximately 114,000 people with 1.5% of deceased donor organs expiring before reaching their intended recipients. This is largely due to unanticipated transportation delays of up to two hours in close to 4% of recorded shipments. Based upon this data, unmanned systems could potentially save more than one thousand lives. In the words of Dr. Scalea, “Delivering an organ from a donor to a patient is a sacred duty with many moving parts. It is critical that we find ways of doing this better.” Unmentioned in the UMMC announcement are the types of ethical considerations required to support autonomous delivery to ensure that rush to extract organs in the field are not overriding the goal of first saving the donor’s life.

As May brings clear skies and the songs of birds, the premise of non life saving drones crowding the air space above is often a haunting image. Last month, the proposition of last mile delivery by UAVs came one step closer with Google’s subsidiary, Wing Aviation,  becoming the first drone operator approved by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation. According to the company, consumer deliveries will commence within the next couple of months in rural Virginia. “It’s an exciting moment for us to have earned the FAA’s approval to actually run a business with our technology,” declared James Ryan Burgess, Wing Chief Executive Officer. The regulations still ban drones in urban areas and limit Wings autonomous missions to farmlands but enable the company to start charging customers for UAV deliveries.

While the rural community administrators are excited “to be the birthplace of drone delivery in the United States,” what is unknown is how its citizens will react to the technology, prone to menacing noise and privacy complaints. Mark Blanks, director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, optimistically stated, “Across the board everybody we’ve spoken to has been pretty excited.” Cautiously, he admits, “We’ll be working with the community a lot more as we prepare to roll this out.” Google’s terrestrial autonmous driving tests have received less than stellar reviews from locals in Chandler, Arizona, which reached a crescendo earlier this year with one resident pulling a gun on a car (one-third of all Virginians own firearms). Understanding the rights of citizenry in policing the skies above their properties is an important policy and ethical issue as unmanned operators move from testing systems to live deployments.

Screen Shot 2019-05-03 at 2.51.34 PMThe rollout of advanced computing technologies is not limited to aviation; artificial intelligence (AI) is being rapidly deployed across every enterprise and organization in the United States. On Friday, McKinsey & Company released a report on the widening penetration of deep learning systems within corporate America. While it is still early in the development of such technologies, almost half of the respondents in the study stated that their departments have embedded such software within at least one business practice this past year. As stated: “Forty-seven percent of respondents say their companies have embedded at least one AI capability in their business processes—compared with 20 percent of respondents in a 2017 study.” This dramatic increase in adoption is driving tech spending with 71% of respondents expecting large portions of digital budgets going toward the implementation of AI. The study also tracked the perceived value of the use of AI with “41 percent reporting significant value and 37 percent reporting moderate value,” compared to 1% “claiming a negative impact.

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Before embarking on a journey south of the border, I participated in a discussion at one of New York’s largest financial institutions about AI bias. The output of this think tank became a suggested framework for administrating AI throughout an organization to protect its employees from bias. We listed three principals: 1) the definition of bias (as it varies from institution to institution); 2) the policies when developing and installing technologies (from hiring to testing to reporting metrics); and 3) employing a Chief Ethics Officer that would report to the board not the Chief Executive Officer (as the CEO is concerned about profit, and could potentially override ethics for the bottomline). These conclusions were supported by a 2018 Deloitte survey that found that 32% of executives familiar with AI ranked ethical issues as one of the top three risks of deployments. At the same time, Forbes reported that the idea of engaging an ethics officer is a hard sell for most Blue Chip companies. In response, Professor Timothy Casey of California Western School of Law recommends repercussions similar to other licensing fields for malicious software, “In medicine and law, you have an organization that can revoke your license if you violate the rules, so the impetus to behave ethically is very high. AI developers have nothing like that.” He suggests that building a value system through these endeavors will create an atmosphere whereby “being first in ethics rarely matters as much as being first in revenues.”

While the momentum of AI adoption accelerates faster than a train going down a hill, some forward-thinking organizations are starting to take ethics very seriously. As an example, Salesforce this past January became one of the first companies to hire a “chief ethical and humane use officer,” empowering Paula Goldman: “To develop a strategic framework for the ethical and humane use of technology.” Writing this article, I am reminded of the words of Winston Churchill in the 1930s cautioning his generation about balancing morality with the speed of scientific discoveries, as the pace of innovation even then far exceeded humankind’s own development: “Certain it is that while men are gathering knowledge and power with ever-increasing and measureless speed, their virtues and their wisdom have not shown any notable improvement as the centuries have rolled. The brain of modern man does not differ in essentials from that of the human beings who fought and loved here millions of years ago. The nature of man has remained hitherto practically unchanged. Under sufficient stress—starvation, terror, warlike passion, or even cold intellectual frenzy—the modern man we know so well will do the most terrible deeds, and his modern woman will back him up.”

Join RobotLab on May 16th when we dig deeper into ethics and technology with Alexis Block, inventor of HuggieBot, and Andrew Flett, partner at Mobility Impact Partners, discussing “Society 2.0: Understanding The Human-Robot Connection In Improving The World” at SOSA’s Global Cyber Center in NYC – RSVP Today! 

Automate 2019 startup showdown recap

It’s been two years since the last time I judged the Automate Startup Competition. More than any other trade show contest, this event has been an oracle of future success. In following up with the last vintage of participants, all of the previous entrees are still operating and many are completing multi-million dollar financing rounds. As an indication of the importance of the venue, and quite possibly the growth of the industry, The Robot Report announced last week that 2017 finalist, Kinema Systems was acquired by SoftBank’s Boston Dynamics. 

Traditionally, autonomous machines at the ProMat Show have been relegated to a subsection of the exhibit floor under the Automate brand. A couple of years ago there were a handful of self-driving rovers with twice as many robotic arms, today almost one third of the entire McCormick Center was promoting unmanned solutions. As e-commerce sales continue to explode, pressuring fulfilment centers nationwide, the logistics industry now demands two separate conventions with Automate 2021 being held in the Motor City for the first time. This palpable buzz formed the backdrop to the packed startup theater that represented the burgeoning mechatronic ecosystem. In the words of Jeff Burnstein, president of A3 (Automate’s organizers), “Automation is among the most dynamic emerging markets, with venture funding increasing robustly each year. The finalists in the Automate Launch Pad Startup Competition represent the many types of innovation that will transform the manufacturing and services sectors over the next decade.”

Freeing The Supplychain From Bottlenecks

The first company that presented, IM Systems (IMS) traveled from the Netherlands to Chicago to unveil its invention that strikes at the core of the robo-universe – actuation. Today, most of the co-bots deployed are utilizing rotary actuators from Japanese-owned Harmonic Drive (HD). HD’s speed reducers are the industry’s standard for gearing technology, offering the greatest level of movement control, force and precision of any  commercially available mechanical system. This has translated to more than $500 million in annual revenue for HD and is projected to grow to more than $3 billion by 2024. HD’s grip on the industry is citied by many as the main reason why collaborative robot companies have failed to achieve unicorn-level growth. Currently unchallenged by competitors, HD has been free to artificially inflate prices by stiffly controlling the number of units it ships a year, maintaining a careful balance of low supply and high demand. As Thibaud Verschoor, founder of IM Systems, walked on stage I eagerly awaited to hear how his company was planning to disrupt HD’s virtual monopoly. Verschoor introduced a toothless gearbox called the Archimedes Drive that relies on friction instead of gear teeth to transmit torque, promising greater precision and lower cost thus hitting directly at Harmonic Drive. Originating from the Delft University of Technology, IMS is already boasting of its growing list of pre-orders with roboticists lining up for a long-awaited alternative. The startup founder quipped that today it is ‘now quicker to gestate a baby than get an actuator from Harmonic Drive, but not anymore’ as its business child will be shipping next year.

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In addition to actuation, energy efficiency has been a hurdle for robots in completing unplugged missions. WiBotic, an innovation spun out of the University of Washington, promises continuous charging availability with its patented wireless inductive power transfer system. Dr. Ben Waters took to the stage to demonstrate how WiBotic is able to charge unmanned vehicles and drones within a ten centimeter proximity of his transfer coils. In addition, WiBotic’s platform is also able to monitor a facility’s entire fleet of autonomous systems to provide managers with better power consumption and machine utilization data, enabling greater productivity and cost efficiency. When I asked Dr. Waters what is next for his company, he exclaimed that they have conquered the air with drones, land with robots, now they are aiming at the sea.

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Labor more than any other theme was the big discussion on the floor of ProMat and Automate. While many pundits decry automation for taking jobs, Daniel Theobald of Vecna Robotics shared with me, at our fireside chat, that no one has been fired because of a robot. In fact, today there are not enough humans to fulfill the growing demand of a global economy. One of the most grueling tasks still performed by humans is riveting, often performed in stiff contortions for hours at a time. Wilder Systems is a new collaborative robot system for the aerospace industry to relieve humans from the repetitive dangerous occupation of vertical drilling and fastening performed during fuselage manufacturing. Wilder offers a modular mobile system that is affordable for factories in providing their customers with greater speed, consistency, and accuracy. Until recently robotic systems like Wilder were only available to large corporations but  now with the startups “robot-as-a-service” business model, smaller aircraft plants are able to automate.

Providing A Gentle Touch 

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When moderating a session the day before about the definition of success in deploying robots, a large grocery store operator asked the panel what is available for his needs. While hard goods is challenging, picking up the wide variety of fragile organic materials of food is almost impossible for traditional metal grippers. While there are a small number of soft robot solutions available on the market, most require air to be pumped into their elastomeric end effectors, adding cost and complexity to the installation. Ubiros claims to be the “first fully electrically operated soft gripper” without any expensive peripheral equipment, such as pressurized air. To illustrate the tenderness of their solution the startup showcased FlowerBot, a robot arm with their gripper that is capable of picking up roses to create attractive (pre-programmed) bouquets. Dr. Cagdas D. Onal, the company’s founder, proudly introduced the judges to their new customer that just purchased 250 units to begin automating his floral fulfillment center. To Dr Onal’s credit, the Automate pavilion literally smelled like roses as throngs of people sat in the theater with vases on their laps.

Visualizing Installations Before Production

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An old proverb teaches that “seeing is believing,” unfortunately machines are often plagued more by Murphy’s Law during the on-boarding process. Firefly Dimension, an augmented reality startup for industrial applications, is focusing on speeding up manufacturing and product development with its unique perspective. Firefly’s headset is the only one in development promoting a 100% field of view equal to one’s eyes. This translates to lower down time, costs and potentially better outcomes. The company shared with the judges its early successes with manufacturers in China that are already testing their prototypes in their production facilities. As many industry analysts project the market for augmented reality solutions to exceed $60 billion by 2024, the Silicon Valley team of entrepreneurs is well positioned to take advantage of the next stage of automation technologies.

Making Robots Accessible For The Masses

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According to Dr. Rahul Chipalkatty, CEO of Southie Autonomy, most of the tasks in the warehouse and factory are not automated because they change too quickly for professional integrators and on-staff engineers to respond. Dr. Chipalkatty asserts that this market is actually the lowest hanging fruit for automation, but has remained untapped as technologists have failed to target non-technical workers. To counter this trend, Southie literally developed a magic wand that utilizes artificial intelligence, gesture control and augmented reality projections to train robots on the fly to respond to spontaneous jobs. The Boston-based startup is marketing its technology for “ANY industrial robot to be re-purposed and re-deployed by ANY person, without robotics expertise or even computer skills.” Companies like Southie that focus on ease-of-use interfaces will only further the overall adoption of robotics in the coming years for millions of employees globally. 

Building A Collision-Free World 

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On the day of the startup competition, Realtime Robotics announced the launch of its proprietary computer board and software that enables “collision-free” motion planning within milliseconds for collaborative robots and autonomous vehicles to work together. Marketed as RapidPlan and RapidSense the startup contends that its solution is the only one available to enable machines to safely operate within workcells with humans and other robots simultaneously. According to the press release (which was later explained on stage) RapidPlan enables users to load up to “20 million motions” into the system that analyzes “800,000 motions at 30 frames-per-second” which is automatically integrated with the machines onboard sensors via RapidSense. Realtime Robotics’ CEO, Peter Howard, bragged, “Our collision-free motion planning solutions allow robots to perform safely in dynamic, unstructured, and collaborative workspaces, while instantaneously reacting to changes as they occur.” Realtime, backed by Toyota AI, is definitely on my startup watch list for 2019/2020.

And The Winner Is

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Deliberating in the judges room, we were challenged to pick a winner from so many qualified diverse startups. Balancing the presentations against the immediate needs of automation industry, one company universally stood out for its important contribution. IM Systems’ Archimedes Drive has the potential to generate a billion-dollar valuation with its promise of bringing down the cost of adoption and quickening the speed of deployment. Following the show, I caught up with IMS founder Jack Schorsch and asked him how he plans to compete against a multinational conglomerate like Harmonic Drive. Schorsch responded, “I do think that HD & Nabtesco have to some degree deliberately throttled their supply, in order to keep unit profits high on sales to everyone but Fanuc/ABB/Yaskawa. On the flip side, I know in my bones that if you can come to market with a technically comparable or better drive you can sell every unit that you can make.”

Join RobotLab on May 16th when we host a discussion with Alexis Block, inventor of HuggieBot, and Andrew Flett, partner at Mobility Impact Partners, on “Society 2.0: Understanding The Human-Robot Connection In Improving The World,” RSVP Today! 

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