Archive for January, 2012

Brother, can you spare a dime – for a robot?

In many ways, the state of robotics in the first part of the 21st century is a lot like the state of automobiles in the first part of the 20th century:

'97 Winton, loaded down with six occupants

This car set a record for carrying 6 occupants around a 1 mile track at 33 MPH

  • There weren’t a lot of cars,
  • Cars didn’t do very much,
  • Cars were mostly a status symbol, and
  • Cars required a full time technician to keep them running.

But cars had the promise of being useful, the promise of changing the very fabric of our lives. And, little by little they were adopted. It is hard to imagine now living without cars and trucks.  We depend on them to move us about, deliver our food, move raw materials to the factories and the finished products to our stores. Our cities literally would collapse if cars and trucks were to vanish in the blink of an eye.  Will it be the same for domestic robots?

Since the 1950’s we have been enthralled with the idea of domestic robots. Whether it was in outer space or here on earth, robots have featured prominently in science fiction, popular movies, and television shows. In many cases these robots worked around the house, making lives better.

In a recent survey, 41% of respondents said that they would be willing to get a loan to pay for a domestic robot. Provided that it was useful. What defined useful?  Well there was quite a laundry list (speaking of which, laundry was on the list).  Topping the list was carrying heavy things around the house, and providing home security. These are key benefits that Gamma Two Robotics also identifies, especially for the age-in-place and home assistance markets.

a living room with a robot entering, carrying a tea pot.

Gamma Two BSL series robot, delivers tea.

In addition were requirements  like:

  • house cleaning
  • acting as a reminder system
  • baby sitters, and assistance for the elderly

Over all, 68% of the respondents indicated that they thought a domestic robot could be useful, and only 29% said that they would not consider buying a robot, even if it provided service.  This is absolutely in line with a number of studies that have been released lately. In one, kids were asked to describe the world they would inhabit when they were adults. Across the board, this world was populated by friendly, companionable robots. In another study, school kids describe the robots acting as teachers, helping them with math, and homework, as well as being a companion.

Our vision is to create a world in which people live better lives, assisted by affordable. reliable, helpful robots. This will only work if people actually want robots in there lives, so all of these surveys are reassuring. But the robots have to be useful.  If they are not making lives better, they are great as status symbols, they might be excellent conversation topics, but they won’t really be helping.

So I applaud those people who say “Yeah, I’d consider getting a loan to pay for a service robot.”  But I really applaud those people who say “But, it can’t be a toy; it has to be useful.”

Where’s your robot? Ours are being built by Gamma Two Robotics, here in Colorado

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Sure it’s a robot, but can it do a day’s work?

The ‘security officer’ started work a little early, and did a quick review of the previous day’s log reports. It is important to maintain situational awareness to do a good job.

Autonomous robot on patrol in a parking garage is detouringaround a parked vehicle

Gamma Two's Mobile Camera Platform security robot detours between a parked car and an opened gate, without relying on human assistance.

As expected, the patrols started on time, one doesn’t want to keep anyone waiting.  On the first garage patrol, the ‘security officer’ confirmed that someone had left a large box outside the parking space of Unit 7. This had been reported in the previous log,  and it shouldn’t block any traffic in the garage, so there was no need to report it to the Security Command Center (SCC). Over the course of the eight hour shift the ‘security officer’ covered just over three miles and completed 58 patrols of the parking garage. Over 20 vehicles entered or left the garage, and on two occasions, when cars blocked the traffic flow, they were reported to the SCC; but no additional action was required.  All in all, it was a routine day, except that the ‘security officer’ on this shift was a Gamma Two robot, and instead of going home when its shift ended, the robot was plugged in to recharge.

As simple as it sounds, this is a critical milestone for robots. This is a robot that can actually do a day’s work. It can go on-duty alongside human workers and it can do its job for a complete shift. It doesn’t require pampering or a special environment. And most of all, it doesn’t require an operator. If a robot requires constant attention, what value is it providing?  In some environments (such as dirty or dangerous areas) there is a value in having the robot in the environment rather than the human, even if the robot is being manually controlled.  But to become an effective co-worker, the robot needs to do its job on its own, autonomously.

And just like their human partners, a robot cannot just work for five or ten minutes. It has to work all day, every day. This is where a lot of robots fall down on the job. In an earlier post Projects versus Products, I looked at why lab projects grab the headlines, but never seem to make it out of the lab. Helen Greiner, in a recent “New Scientist” article also wrote about “Time for Robots to get Real”. Again the focus is on getting the job done, day in and day out.

That is hard to do.  It’s not that hard to handle the really routine stuff, the long boring patrols where nothing happens; but to be useful the robot also has to handle the odd things that show up once in a while. Like the car that cuts the robot off. Apparently the driver thought the robot was going to steal the parking place, go figure.  But the robot ‘saw’ the car, did an abrupt stop, reported the incident over the wireless network along with a high resolution image of the event to the SCC.  And then the robot went back to work, because that’s what you do when it is a job.  Sure, there are situations when the incident is ‘above your pay grade’. Then you pass it up the chain of command and let the boss tell you what to do, or take care of it herself.

But, for the routine, day to day stuff, you have to take care of it yourself. After all, that’s what they are paying you for.  Or, in the case of the robots, that’s what they are recharging you for. It’s your job.

Where’s your robot?  Ours are being built at Gamma Two Robotics

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“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.”

There is a scene in the film “The Graduate”, in which the protagonist, Benjamin, is getting unsolicited advice about his future from Mr. McGuire:

I have just one word to say to you...

I have just one word to say to you…

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

I was thinking about this last week, when I was attending a meeting of the Colorado Robotics Association. This is a relatively new organization, they will celebrate their one-year mark in April, and it is made up of business people, engineers, and academic researchers who focus on robotics.  What I find most amazing is the number of institutions and individuals involved in robotics in Colorado. At this meeting there were 23 individuals, representing 17 different institutions, including the major universities, companies renging from the very large, to small start-ups.

There was a palpable energy in the discussions that ran around the breakfast table. Yes, all these people got together for breakfast at a local restaurant.  People were generating ideas faster than they could be written down, and when the meeting separated into smaller brainstorming groups, the noise level exploded. The focus of the meeting was a brainstorming session for raising the general awareness of the size and activity level of the robotics industry in Colorado. There was a secondary focus on how to take advantage of the synergy between the various institutions and businesses.   I heard a robotics start-up company meeting a company that specializes in developing production models out of prototypes, a professor teaching robotics discussing ways to help promote the upcoming BEST competitions.

And that is when it hit me.  “Plastics.”

It is hard to remember, and for many people, they never experienced this, but 60 years ago, there were only a few plastics available. And many of these had significant trade-offs in appearance, strength, and durability. However, as Mr. McQuire observed, the plastics industry was going to revolutionize modern industry, and massively expand the range of products. Incidentally, it was also going to make a lot of people a lot of money in the process.  More recently, it was like sitting around when there were a handful of personal computer manufacturers, and the machines really didn’t do very much. But, the energy and excitement fuelled the promises, and look at where we are now. Incidentally, the personal computer market was also going to make a lot of people a lot of money in the process.

The robotics industry, at least here in Colorado, is poised on the runway, ready to take off. The technology is moving out of the labs and into products, the synergy between the numerous companies and the academic labs is high. From the conversations I heard at the Colorado Robotics Association, robotics is also going to make a lot of people a lot of money. So, I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.


Where’s your robot?  Ours are being built by Gamma Two Robotics here in Colorado

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Fox News covers Gamma Two Robots!

check out: Gamma Two robots covered by Fox News! 7 robots hidden in Plain Sight!

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Projects versus Products

It was cold in the parking garage. We had been sitting there, off and on, for almost 9 hours a day, both Saturday and Sunday.  Watching the robot tirelessly patrol the facility. It can be pretty boring, watching a robot roll from one end of the garage to the other, scanning for problems, relaying video. But we are testing the robot, so we need to pay attention, stay alert. It gives one time to think.

What strikes me, over and over again now, is the huge difference between a laboratory project and a product. When I was finishing my doctorate, I worked an a number of  robotics projects, and we did hundreds of demonstrations on new robot technology. Each one carefully set up, and monitored by grad-students.   Today, we are testing the Gamma Two Security Robot. It is designed to serve in empty warehouses, event centers, and other facilities, late at night when the place is (supposed) to be empty.  It is intended to provide security for eight to ten hours a night, 365 days a year. Without having a protective grad-student technician trailing along behind to watch over the robot. And that is where the difference between a product and a project shows up.

The university setting is designed to support learning, and reward new contributions to knowledge. So every year, in hundreds of robotics labs around the country, students are doing brilliant research into new and better ways to make robots smarter and better. I spent six years doing exactly that, and did dozens of projects. Every few weeks, if you are looking for them, you can find press releases from this lab or that lab about their new robot that can fold laundry, or cook breakfast, or (perhaps the most popular) fetch a beer. The press release comes with impressive video showing the robot executing its task flawlessly. These videos became popular after the release of the Shakey video from Stanford.  The robot planned and executed tasks and was under development from 1966 (yes – over 40 years ago) to the 1970’s.

Unfortunately, almost every one of those videos is more like a commercial than a documentary. The sad fact is that the 2-3 minutes you see on YouTube often requires several hours of painstaking set up: to get the robot into the exact location, the slices of bread aligned perfectly, and the precise orientation of the refrigerator door handle mapped into a CAD program. And then, even with all the high-tech laser measurements, it still might require five or ten, or even 20 or 30 ‘takes’ to get a clean video. Just like the perfume commercial, or the new car ad: “Cut!, set it up again, everybody else take 20!”

This is due, in part, to the academic system – almost nobody gets a PhD for making a system more reliable, or easier to deploy. So, as a researcher you are rewarded to do something new, and then something newer, and behind you lies a trail of projects that got good enough to make the video and write the paper. Now this is not universally true.  There are labs like Carnegie Mellon where there was a museum guide robot named ‘Chips’ that has logged almost 500Km in over four years of giving tours.

That becomes the difference between a project and a product. The product has to work, every day, all day. Sure it will ‘call in sick’ with a bad sensor or a flat tire. But it needs to be dependable.  Most projects work some of the time, good projects maybe 50% of the time, and great projects might work 99% of the time.  But if your car only started 99% of the time, you would end up stranded about once a month.  You are not going to buy that car again!

So here we are in the garage, watching the robot.  We’ve logged over 120Km in the last year, but it is still not robust enough. We are working on our first five kilometer day. Five thousand meters of hands-free, no-problems patrol.  And not in a lab, we are testing in a working parking garage.  Cars come in and out, people walk by, every day someone has left a stack of boxes or a pallet somewhere unexpected.  We don’t re-program the robot, the robot has to deal with these changes on its own; it has to show up every day for work, and it has to do its job well. Otherwise no-one will ‘hire’ the robot.

What drives us is simple. For fifty years they have been promising us robots. We see them in the movies, we hear about them on the news, but we are still asking “Where is my Robot?”

I do wish they would heat the garage.

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Three way conflict – Appeasement

As part of the management team for a start-up robotics company, I find myself at war with myself.  A lot. On the one hand, I like the technical challenges of designing and building intelligent, autonomous robots.  On the other hand, we are running a business that requires constant management.  On the third hand, there is the drive to create a better life, doing what I love.

I was just reading Michael Gerber‘s “The E-Myth, revisited”  (I know, I’m late. What have I been doing for the last 15 years?) He classifies this conflict as being between The Entrepreneur, The Manager, and The Technician.  For the last four weeks, the Technician has been in charge. You see, we design and build robots, and in (let me check the dashboard) 177 days, we have our first product launch – a mobile security robot.   There is a big difference between a ‘laboratory project’ and a product.  In the lab, if the project works most of the time, but requires hours of painstaking set-up for a five minute demonstration, that is OK.  For a product it has to work reliably, and for hour after hour after hour, with no adjustments.  Our security robot needs to work eight to ten hours a day, on its own, with no helpful technician trailing along behind to take care of things.

So, for the last few weeks, we have been sitting in an indoor parking garage, watching a robot patrol up and down, and up and down, and… well you get the idea. One of the drawbacks of reliability testing is that it takes time to expose the failure modes that only show up after lots of time. If a product is going to work with out problems for eight hours a day, seven days a week, it takes lots of time to find the remaining problems.

This provides a lot of time for thought.  So I have been thinking about the roles that I must play to be part of a small company. My Entrepreneur Aspect is already tired of this robot thing, heck we have been working on the same project for almost four years. My Technician Aspect is happy as a clam, tweaking the little fiddly bits to make a better robot, and My Manager Aspect, wants all product development frozen, so that everything becomes stable, and manageable.  Boy, do I get into fights with myself. Worse, when the internal stresses get to the bursting point, I blow-up at someone. This is not good. I know that whatever the trigger was, it isn’t the other person’s fault; but the frustration can just explode, and I snap at someone, and that just makes things worse.  Really not good.

So I have trying to balance the demands of the three aspects.  For me, the Technician Aspect is the easiest to appease, I really like working of the technology, and I can justifiably devote a significant amount of time ‘making things work’.  Of course the Technician still grumbles about every minute I take away from “the real work” and waste on useless business stuff.

I appease the manager (and take care of some of that business stuff) by tracking the development, measuring the progress, and laying out the next steps. Microsoft Project files, defect tracking software, weekly status meetings all help the Manager Aspect think we are on top of things, and (even if we have not reached perfect stasis) at least the tasks are manageable. We run a simple internal web based dashboard that tracks the to-do list, the upcoming events, and the historical progress of the many pieces that have to come together for our product launch.

Finally, there is the visionary Entrepreneur Aspect. Boy, is he a pain in the butt. Not only did he get us into this mess, but now it is like he couldn’t care less about making it work.  All he wants to do is move on to the next big thing, “hey, we could use that cybernetic brain to make a desktop companion that would actually function like a real personal assistant. Let’s see, all we would have to do is…..” So I an attempting a new appeasement strategy. As we move towards our product launch, we will go through several stages, each one requiring a new (for us) undertaking. The marketing plans, the contract manufacturing set-up, the sales and distribution channels, the Trade shows.  Each of these is, in many ways, a complete new entrepreneurial undertaking.  So, we are envisioning each as its own entity, and turning the Entrepreneur Aspect loose on them in turn.  This blog is part of that process, and it seems to be a successful appeasement strategy, that also furthers the cause.

Now we’ll just have to see how the other aspects react.  Did I mention I love being an Entrepreneur?

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