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UAS take on aerial photography Inside this issue:

Investing in robotics Open source versus closed source Robots aid autism therapy Mission Critical

Summer 2012


Promoting and Supporting Unmanned Systems and Robotics Across the Globe


6 – 9 AUGUST

Conference from 6 - 9 August Tradeshow from 7 - 9 August 500+ Exhibiting Companies 40+ Countries Represented 8,000+ Attendees


CONTENTS V O L U M E 2 N O . 2 • S U M M E R 2 0 1 2


Keeping their options open Companies debate the value of open-source and closed-source robotics

TORC Robotics uses an XGV system to turn any manned vehicle into a robotic platform. AUVSI photo.


Essential components

Page 16

14 State of the art A look at where publicly traded robotics companies are located

The latest commercial robotics news


Pop culture corner The inspiration for many commercial robots


Q&A Chuck Thorpe from OSTP delves into the National Robotics Initiative

On the cover: Coptercam, a platform from a new startup in Australia with the same name, captures the Perth skyline. The company is gaining popularity for its commercial UAS photography. For more information, see Page 29. Photo courtesy PerthNow.

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26 Timeline The evolution of humanoids

36 Uncanny valley How humans can leverage technology to stay relevant

Page 16

38 Testing, testing

Cash Machine

Robotics and automation companies are turning heads on Wall Street, attracting wealthy companies as their investors and leveraging themselves for large commercial growth.

Carnegie Mellon’s work to get to a more Rosie (the robot) future

40 Spotlight BeatBot’s Keepon aids in autism therapy

42 Technology gap Getting a grasp on robotic manipulation

44 End users Students leverage UAS technology in the real world

Page 29 A cut above the rest Australian companies, like unmanned aerial photography outfit Coptercam, are reaping the rewards of their country’s open skies, while U.S. companies wait for permission to take off.

Mission Critical is published four times a year as an official publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Contents of the articles are the sole opinions of the authors and do not necessarily express the policies or opinion of the publisher, editor, AUVSI or any entity of the U.S. government. Materials may not be reproduced without written permission. All advertising will be subject to publisher’s approval and advertisers will agree to indemnify and relieve publisher of loss or claims resulting from advertising contents. Annual subscription and back issue/reprint requests may be addressed to AUVSI. Mission Critical is provided with AUVSI membership.


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Summer 2012

Editor’s message Editorial Vice President of Communications and Publications, Editor Brett Davis Managing Editor Danielle Lucey Associate Editor Stephanie Levy Contributing Writers Lindsay Voss Frank Tobe Advertising Senior Advertising and Marketing Manager Lisa Fick +1 571 255 7779

A publication of

President and CEO Michael Toscano Executive Vice President Gretchen West AUVSI Headquarters 2700 South Quincy Street, Suite 400 Arlington, VA 22206 USA +1 703 845 9671


recently attended the Driverless Car Summit, a gathering organized by AUVSI and the University of Michigan Dearborn’s Connected Vehicle Proving Center. The conference focused on transitioning driverless cars from a novel thing just a few companies are toying with to a fully fledged, adopted technology in 10 years. Keynote speaker Bran Ferren, cochair at Applied Minds LLC, previously worked at Walt Disney Co., where he was tasked with tracking the path of technologies that completely altered the course of humanity. Ferren has identified six steps that make or break emerging technologies. One of them really stuck with me: It’s important that every great technology has a great storyteller. For computing, many could argue that person with the right balance of persuasion and know-how was Steve Jobs. But for robotics, who will that person be? While the industry still searches for its human divining rod, leading the public toward a future rich with robotics, AUVSI’s publication staff shares a small part of his or her eventual task. In an effort to tell the tale of how robotics is making this transition to widespread acceptance, we’ve put figurative pen to paper to bring you the latest stories and trends in the commercial market. Investing in unmanned systems and robotics isn’t a far-away trend. Asso-

Danielle Lucey

ciate editor Stephanie Levy looks at recent high-profile sales in the robotics world, like Amazon’s purchase of Kiva Systems for the website’s supply chain. She also speaks to TORC Robotics, a company that focuses on using its strengths to make smart internal investments. Her story can be found on Page 17. Guest writer Frank Tobe, creator of the website The Robot Report, explores how companies are approaching open- versus closedsource robotics. For his complete take on that debate, see Page 9. For our feature on Page 29 on aerial photography using unmanned aerial systems, I spoke with two companies to compare how airspace access in their home countries is affecting their ability to go commercial. Coptercam, an Australian start-up, is reaping the rewards of Civil Aviation Safety Authority certification. Meanwhile, HeliMalibu, a U.S. company, has had much of its success relegated to shoots in Mexico and South America while it awaits a ruling from the Federal Aviation Administration on commercial UAS use. I hope you will join us in spreading these stories. It is an important step to moving our industry forward. Mission Critical

Summer 2012


Essential Components Sphero branches out Sphero, the programmable robotic ball that was released in late 2011, has made its way onto the shelves at gadget retailer Brookstone. In addition to its first retail locations, Sphero company Orbotix also recently secured another $5 million in financing from Foundry Group and Highway 12 Ventures. The product can be programmed through smartphone apps to do a multitude of things, from simply driving it around to turning it into a mobile alarm clock. The device retails for $129.99, and, in line with most of the company’s marketing efforts, the company is using a grassroots effort to make its product a commercial hit. Orbotix hosts weekly giveaways on its website for creative stories, drawings, photos and cartoons depicting Sphero in unique ways. The company also recently got a presidential seal of approval when Barack Obama took time out of a meet and greet outside the University of Colorado to play with Sphero himself.



Click IT:

To see President Barack Obama take Sphero for an impromptu spin, click or scan this barcode with your smartphone.

UAS pilot wins British photography award The British Institute of Professional Photographers awarded its highest honor, the Fox Talbot Award, to former Royal Air Force pilot Nigel King. But King never snapped a single shot. King received the award, given to photographers who have made an outstanding achievement in photography, because he created UAVs that take high-quality images for end users around the world. Currently, two of his UAS are flying across Chile’s Atacama Desert. Their view from 10,000 feet will help NASA researchers develop navigation and imaging software for the latest Mars Rover. Research companies and universities have also expressed interest in his systems. Ultimately, Nigel wants to reduce the cost of small UAS so they can reach more civil and commercial users. His current UAS, a fourth-generation model, allows the end user to master high-resolution, large-scale maps with a user-friendly system. And these end users could be anyone. Nigel is working on UAS applications for forestry work in Finland and Swiss train studies. Outside of Europe, Nigel says he hopes to use his unmanned aerial photography for land mine clearance in countries like Cambodia and Angola, as well as in Antarctic ice studies and the understanding of natural disasters worldwide.

Sphero is one of the latest open-source robots to hit the gadget market. Photo courtesy Orbotix.


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Essential Components Space goes commercial In May, private spaceflight company SpaceX became the first to launch a commercial unmanned mission to the International Space Station, docking its Dragon space capsule on a resupply mission. After a couple delays, the Falcon 9 rocket took off from Cape Canaveral on 25 May, docked with the station and then returned to Earth via a splash landing on 31 May. SpaceX has spent $1.2 billion since it was founded in 2002. May also brought the first commercial satellite contract for another of its rockets, the Falcon Heavy. Teamed with satellite service provider Intelsat, the contract provides for a satellite launch into geosynchronous transfer orbit. “SpaceX is very proud to have the confidence of Intelsat, a leader in the satellite communication services industry,” says Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and chief designer. “The Falcon Heavy has more than twice the power of the next largest rocket in the world. With this new vehicle, SpaceX launch systems now cover the entire spectrum of the launch needs for commercial, civil and national security customers.” “Timely access to space is an essential element of our commercial supply chain,” says Thierry Guillemin, Intelsat chief technology officer. “As a global leader in the satellite sector, our support of successful new entrants to the commercial launch industry reduces risk in our business model. Intelsat has exacting technical standards and requirements for proven flight heritage for our satel-

The SpaceX Dragon Capsule approaches the International Space Station. Photo courtesy NASA.

lite launches. We will work closely with SpaceX as the Falcon Heavy completes rigorous flight tests prior to our future launch requirements.” The Falcon Heavy rocket is the most powerful rocket on record, capable of lifting 117,000 pounds into low Earth orbit and 26,000 pounds into geosynchronous transfer orbit. This payload will one day allow SpaceX to launch the largest ever satellite into space.

RobotShop ranked one of Canada’s fastest growing companies Canadian magazine Profit has named RobotShop one of its 200 fastest growing companies in Canada, coming in at 63 on the list. The company says it has grown more than 800 percent in the last five years. RobotShop is the only robotics company on the list.

RobotShop sells personal and professional robots, as well as robot toys, kits and parts, all through its website. The company has distribution centers in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, and sells its products all over the world. “RobotShop’s performance confirms what experts around the globe are saying about the field of robotics. It is growing rapidly and is becoming a key strategic industry in the 21st century,” says Mario Tremblay, founder, president and CEO of RobotShop, in a press release. “With over 5,000 products catering to the service robot market, more precisely for education, research, domestic and professional use, I believe more than ever that RobotShop is a benchmark in the robotics market, showing the revolution that is underway and that the reality of a robot in every home is not far away.” Mission Critical

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Essential Components — continued from Page 5

Putting more brains in Roomba IRobot’s ubiquitous commercial robot, the Roomba vacuum cleaner, just got upgraded with a lot of smarts. The new Roomba 790, announced in mid-June, allows users to use a Wireless Command Center remote control to steer the robot to any hair or dust bunny. The newest Roomba, which is available for $699.99, also features previous models’ capability of scheduled cleanings.

Research Version of the sewing machine with high-speed vision and servo-controlled dog. Photo courtesy Software Automation Inc.

Pentagon stitches together robot sewing machines The Pentagon has given $1.2 million to Georgia-based Softwear Automation to create robot sewing machines. The robot must be able to precisely move fabric under the needle stitch-by-stitch and track passing threads, a job previously reserved for a careful human hand and eye. Softwear Automation is the brainchild of Georgia Tech researcher Steve Dickerson, who wanted to make garment cutting and sewing a profitable U.S. business again through robotics. Dickerson told the press he got the idea for his company after realizing that sewn items had disappeared from much of the United States. “The [robotic] technology proposed appears to allow cutting and sewing at costs less than in China,” ac6

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cording to Softwear Automation’s website. “There is only one basic innovation required — that the metric of motion should not be meters or inches but rather thread count in the fill and warp directions.” By the numbers, the U.S. currently imports approximately $100 billion worth of clothes and sewn items. Most of it comes from countries like China or Vietnam. Should robotic sewing machines become commonplace in the garment industry, workers abroad could stand to experience the most disruption, as there is the risk that robots will take over their jobs. Dickerson says he’s also looking into ways to use robots to manufacture smartphones, computers and TVs in the U.S. He pitched the idea to the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 2011.

In an interview with the online magazine Mashable, Marc Dinee, iRobot’s general manager of its Home Robots business unit, explained the switch. “We’re constantly on the pulse of customer feedback and understand users seek flexibility. The added features enable them to easily customize the cleaning experience and meet the needs of their individual homes.” Another upgrade is the robot can be programmed for room-to-room navigation, which lets the Roomba clean each room in the house before returning to its charging station. The robot also comes in a new color, blue.

In addition to making a smarter robot, iRobot also made this Roomba available in blue. Photo courtesy iRobot.


Participate in AUVSI’s Member Marketplace, a NEW members-only network of free online classified advertisements featuring sections devoted to employment, research and for sale items.

Visit today, or scan the barcode above to go to website. Mission Critical


Summer 2012





Two sides to the story

An early automobile patent; Henry Ford pushed for open-source development. Image courtesy Frank Tobe.

By frank tobe


s open-source robotics the best approach to developing commercially successful robotics products? Does it contribute more to product development and commercialization than the conventional entrepreneurial model? The Open Source Initiative describes its namesake as “a development method that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, speedier development and an end to the limitations imposed by proprietary systems. One of the most important activities of open source is as a standards body, maintaining


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the source code, tools and libraries for the good of the community.” Willow Garage, a proponent of opensource methods for robotics, says that if you make it free and easy to design, program, simulate and test robotic applications — and then share your progress, problems and results with others all over the world using a common platform — then applications will come. Conversely, many people feel that the quickest and most successful way to develop robotics products is to identify a need in an economically viable market that can be filled with a robotic solution and then build a practical and specialized robotic product to satisfy that need.

Open source The concept of sharing technological information existed long before the open-source movement. In the early years of automobile development, a group owned the rights to a two-cycle gasoline engine patent. By controlling this patent, which they purchased from original horseless carriage patent holder George Selden, they were able to monopolize the industry and force car manufacturers to adhere to their demands or risk a lawsuit. In 1911, independent automaker Henry Ford won a challenge to the patent. The result was that the patent became virtually worthless and a new association — which would eventually

become the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association — was formed.

and have fundamentally altered the way software is produced.

The new association instituted a cross-licensing agreement among all U.S. auto manufacturers: Although each company would develop technology and file patents, these patents were shared openly and without the exchange of money between all the manufacturers. By the time the U.S. entered World War II, 92 Ford patents and 515 patents from other companies were being shared between these manufacturers, without any exchange of money — or lawsuits.

Not too long ago, software was developed by hiring smart people, locking them in a room and sliding pizza under the door until the job was done. The open-source world has come about because everyone has become interconnected, resulting in more effective ways to produce, upgrade and maintain software.

Another example of early technological sharing came from DARPA. Researchers with access to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) used a process called Request for Comments to develop telecommunication network protocols. This collaborative process of the 1960s led to the birth of the Internet in 1969. Before the phrase open source became widely adopted, a variety of phrases were used to describe the concept. Open source gained traction with the rise of the Internet and ease of global communication. With the advent of largescale participation, information has flowed freely everywhere, all the time. Collaborative software ecosystems have sprung up far and wide

systems for their control, sensory feedback and data processing. Robotics reaches across disciplines, including mechanical engineering, artificial intelligence, electronics and computer programming. Thus, robotics is a multidisciplinary branch of technology with reusable software providing the tools, device drivers, libraries, visualizers, message passing, package management and more. Open-source robotics is topical not only because of the collaborative brainpower available via the Internet, but because of the prevalence of reinventing the wheel in university graduate programs and scholarly papers, which cartoonist Jorge Cham, a Ph.D. himself, captured so well in one of his comics, seen on this page.

Most major technology education centers teach the software and platforms available to them for free or by their computer suppliers, faculty, previous faculty and research partners. For example, Cartoon courtesy Jorge Cham. CLARAty, a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Carnegie Mellon and University of Minnesota software Open source in robotics framework, came about because of Robotics involves the design, con- all of their collaborative efforts on struction, operation, structural dis- various NASA projects. position, manufacture and applicaAnother example is in Europe. In tion of robots — and also computer December 2000, motivated by more Mission Critical

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Open-Source Robotics — continued from Page 9

A KUKA YouBot robotic arm, which uses ROS open-sourrce software. Photo courtesy KUKA.

CoroWare’s CoroBot, which relies on Robotics Operating System open-source software to be the “open robotics platform of choice.” Image courtesy CoroWare.


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than two decades of disappointing experiences, members of the European Robotics Research Network launched an idea of an open-control framework called Oroscos. Oroscos continues today, but Willow Garage’s Robotic Operating System is making inroads in Europe’s academic labs. As those schools teach the next round of job candidates, ROS’ influence will likely grow stronger year by year. Urbi is another example and is found as the core platform in Lego’s Mindstorms NXT system, Segways, Parrot AR.Drones, Gostai’s Jazz line of telepresence robots and Korea’s Robotis Bioloid robots. Orosco, ROS and Urbi are framework-type systems. A framework resides above the real-time control software and is capable of providing design, simulation, links to reusable data libraries, and higher level and graphical coding techniques from which, when it’s appropriate, it then renders real-time code and sends that code to the control system to be executed. New open-source robotics platforms start all the time, for example the Rossum Project and DARwin-OP, both of which have strong university backing and appear to be viable competitors to Willow Garage’s ROS. ROS was originally developed in 2007 at Stanford but moved to Willow Garage, a robotics research institute and incubator, in 2008. Willow Garage recently passed the torch to the Open Source Robotics Foundation, an independent nonprofit dedicated to continuing the further development and distribution of ROS. In the five years since its devel-

opment, ROS has become accepted and utilized globally by most major technology universities and research facilities. Since it is a framework, universities can easily integrate their specialty capabilities into ROS and then others can make use of it — or choose not to. The major industrial robot makers have also begun to experiment with a variant of ROS, ROS-Industrial. Yaskawa Electric (Motoman) is a supporter. KUKA’s youBot products, which are promoted as educational tools for the academic marketplace, have no proprietary software whatsoever, only ROS. ABB is also experimenting, as are the Southwest Research Institute and the Fraunhofer Institute.

to match the precision and speed of the robots they operate, provide the robust features users require, and, as a consequence, become highly valued by robot vendors and users. During those years, however, there was a lack of standardization. The only thing people could agree upon was standard interfaces and connectors. There are 30-plus major industrial robot manufacturers, and there are also 30-plus different robot software packages. To mix and match takes knowledge and integration of at least two unique software systems. Legacy systems keep running, but program changes get more difficult each year because legacy programmers have moved on.

Proprietary robotic software

The development, first of the ARPANET and then of the Internet, enabled communication beyond the small borders of the limited computer supplier network. Further change occurred as the cost of sensors and vision systems tumbled. And the ROS-type frameworks are helping along these most recent changes, which offer integration of all the new-tech capabilities and also the ability to simulate.

Forty to 50 years ago, the robotics industry began in a highly proprietary, secretive environment. There was no mix and match, no discount providers, no open source. Users had to choose a computer vendor, thereby limiting their growth path to that of their computer supplier. Universities supplying job candidates to the industry were similarly beholding to the computer companies that donated computers and other perks. Over the years, these proprietary systems have been refined, honed

Legacy or not, robotic software is complex and has many layers, the most visible being the application layer — the software that visibly effects a desired task. Application software creates routines that provide a service, perform a task or entertain. Application software includes command and control and tasking software. Underneath that is a robotic operating system which interacts with vision systems, navigation systems, and various sensors to evaluate input and compute solutions to

There are many commercial software products that attempt to provide many of the tools, libraries, graphical user interfaces and simulation that are offered freely in the open-source world. These include Skilligent/National Instruments, Microsoft, Energid, Evolution Robotics and CoroWare.

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Open-Source Robotics — continued from Page 11

fulfill the task(s) given by the application software. Below that is the control system, which contains all the algorithms that speedily make the mechanics of the device work as instructed.

Pros and cons There are really three different robotic worlds operating today, often independently, and each has different positions regarding open source. The first comes from industrial robotics — a handful of well established corporations sell highly specialized devices for business use. KUKA, FANUC, ABB and Yaskawa Motoman are among the vendors providing handling, welding, painting, room cleaning, and assembling robots to industries like automobiles and electronics. According to the International Federation of Robotics in their annual World Industrial Robotics 2011 report, 118,337 robot units were sold in 2010, bringing the worldwide count of industrial robots in place and working to 1,035,000. Most often the argument in support of proprietary systems and against open source is by industrial users who want to be assured that their robotic devices are securely integrated into their proprietary operating systems with no chance of a disabling breach. Robot vendors have developed software that meets those requirements. They have a vested interest in protecting their value-added software and hardware solutions, thus they are also loud supporters of proprietary systems. Colin Angle, CEO and cofounder of iRobot, thinks open source is dangerous to the industry as a whole, 12

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particularly in this time of often illegal shifting of technology from West to East. He feels that open source is detrimental to the monetizing of the service robotics sector in particular. Angle suggested that freely providing such a key and critical component as the robotic operating and simulation system — and the extensive libraries that go with it — is tantamount to letting the biggest consumer giants gobble up any mass market applications and remarket them globally at low cost because they already have — or could easily reverse engineer — the hardware, and the operating system was free courtesy of ROS. “Robotics innovation represents a tremendous opportunity for economic growth akin to automobiles, aerospace and information technology,” Angle said at a get-together during the recent InnoRobo Conference in France. “If we are to freely share our intellectual capital on the open market, we risk losing the economic engine that will advance our economies and send growth and jobs overseas.” The second comes from service robotics — faster growing, with startup companies and research labs producing innovative toys, gadgets for hobbyists and niche products. These niches are in health care; agriculture; home; space; defense; security; unmanned aerial, ground and underwater vehicles; and scientific research. According to the International Federation of Robotics in their annual World Service Robotics 2011 report, 2,203,241 total service-sector robots were sold in 2010, comprised of 13,741 field or high-end service robot units (of which 45 percent were

for defense applications), about 1.4 million vacuum and floor cleaners, 36,500 lawn-mowing robots and 753,000 entertainment robots. Healthcare and defense users, like industrial users, want assurance that their robotic software provides security as well as reliability and efficiency. They have argued that open source is fine for development, but when a concept develops into an application and moves to commercialization, it is critical that it be made secure. New robotic endeavors attempting to break into nonindustrial strongholds — like small- and mediumsized enterprises, consumer add-on products and personal assistance robots — argue that they need the brainpower and collaboration of open source to speed up the development times to bring their ideas to market. These foothold markets don’t care about the technological achievements; they want the solution and are willing to tolerate imperfections in the beginning. Robert Bauer, executive director for commercialization at Willow Garage, says the company’s objectives are to stimulate the industry by enabling participants to not have to reinvent the many cross-science elements of robotics ventures; to reuse software under the premise that by doing so it saves developer time and allows researchers to focus on their work; and by giving them free access to the tools, libraries and simulation capabilities of ROS. It would also allow access to ROS’ many libraries and to the PR2 ROS platforms that are available for testing and experimentation. Bauer also said that once

a successful app was developed, it made sense that the new endeavor would likely lock down the operating system and application software in order to protect their invention. “Willow Garage hopes to advance the state-of-the-art in autonomous robotics technologies,” says Steve Cousins, CEO. “We want everyone to work together. We’re happy having a smaller piece of the pie, but having the pie be much bigger.” Colin Angle has consistently held that we are going about developing the robotics industry wrong. “The idea that a humanoid robot with arms would push a vacuum cleaner is an image that has set many expectations and, in some ways, has set back the industry,” says Angle. But by just rethinking what needs to be done, we can build a product that satisfies a specific need, as iRobot did with its Roomba line of robotic vacuums. “I used to think that I was a self-respecting, high-tech entrepreneur, but it took me becoming a vacuum cleaner salesman to actually have some success for my company, my investors and myself.” Supporting Angle’s position to find a problem and develop a unique robotic solution is the recent news that Amazon acquired Kiva Systems (for a whopping $775 million). Kiva Systems is the company that turned warehousing upside down by using robots to bring shelves to the pickers and packers instead of vice versa. The final analysis on open source comes from research and academia, which are providing teaching tools, kits, software, and devices for education and research at universities and high schools.

The Layers of Software

A ision, Nav V & Other Sensors obot Operating R Systems (ROS) ontrol Systems C & Hardware pplications

Image courtesy Frank Tobe.

Academics and emerging businesses need openness, standardization and sharing so that reinvention isn’t so prevalent as it has been. Also, they need a full range of features and simulation capabilities so that farranging teams can collaborate on advanced research projects using the same software.

Yea or nay? Although both sides of the controversy appear to have merit, if one uses the analogy that developing apps for smartphones and tablets is similar to developing applications for service robots in the open-source

community, imagine how much talent is being squandered in the whimsy of making fun apps. Do we have to sift through the chaos and diversity of thousands of apps to find the few — if any — that are suitable for our real business needs? Or would we be better served to rethink how we satisfy those needs by building specific robotic products to meet their challenges? Or can both positions thrive side-by side? Frank Tobe is editor and publisher of The Robot Report, a news website dedicated to tracking the business side of robotics.

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Taking stock in robotics


CoroWare, Kirkland, Wash. CoroWare builds a variety of communication and automation systems, including robots, telepresence systems and communications technology. It provides customizable robotic systems, CorBot and Explorer, to universities, government agencies, laboratories and other users.

Microsoft Robotics, Redmund, Wash. Launched in 2006 by its computing parent company, Microsoft Robotics doesn’t focus on hardware but instead creates software that can be used on any platform. Its newest release, Robotics Developer Studio 4, came out in March, and adds support for the Xbox Kinect via the Kinect for Windows platform.

ABB Robotics, Auburn Hills, Mich. ABB Robotics offers a variety of systems and services for industrial robots and modular manufacturing systems, including robotic arms and controllers for assembly, painting, welding and other tasks. The company has installed more than 190,000 robotic systems around the world.

John Deere, Moline, Ill. John Deere’s agricultural robots have had applications in the field and in university programs. On the commercial side, the company also has a robotic lawnmower that is currently sold in Europe.

Hansen Medical, Mountain View, Calif. Hansen Medical Inc. develops, manufactures and markets medical robotics systems. Its robots are currently in use assisting catheter patients.

QinetiQ, Farnborough, U.K., and McLean, Va. Intuitive Surgical, Sunnyvale, Calif. Intuitive Surgical is the maker of the da Vinci surgical robot, which has been used for urologic, gynecologic, cardiothoracic, general, and head and neck surgeries. The da Vinci includes a surgeon’s console, a 3-D vision system and proprietary wrist-like instruments.

Adept Technology, Pleasanton, Calif. Adept Technology provides intelligent robots and mobile autonomous systems for assembly, handling, packaging, testing and other processes to customers around the world. The company recently reported a record shipment to Swisslog Healthcare Solutions for robots to be used in hospitals, clinics and labs for transporting specimens, lab samples and medicines.


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AeroVironment Monrovia, Calif. AeroVironment is well known to AUVSI members and unmanned systems watchers as the builder of small UAS like the Raven, Puma and Wasp, not to mention the tiny Hummingbird. However, the company also works in other industries, including providing charging stations for electric vehicles, including Nissan’s Leaf.

QinetiQ Group Plc houses both unmanned air assets in its U.K. division and a multitude of unmanned ground systems stateside at its QinetiQ North America subsidiary. It builds systems from the highflying Zephyr to the tiny Dragon Runner 10, and its ground robots assisted in the Fukushima nuclear cleanup in Japan.

Mako Surgical Corp., Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Mako Surgical’s main robotic contribution is its RIO arm, which assists in surgeries like total hip replacements and partial knee resurfacing. In February 2008, three years after its robotic arm received Food and Drug Administration approval, the company announced its initial public offering. The company experienced a 51 percent increase in its comparative earnings from the first quarter of 2011 versus the same period for 2012.


here are countless robotics companies entering the commercial market, and many more are likely to come with changing regulations and increasing public familiarity with the technology. Like the booming Internet market sector, what sets some robotics companies aside is public trading. A recent write up by Robotics Business Review highlighted these 20 public companies, some of which have their roots in many other market areas.

Motoman Robotics, Miamisburg, Ohio A division of Yaskawa America Inc., Motoman Robotics’ applications include arc welding, assembly, coating, dispensing and material cutting, to name a few industrial uses for its robots. The company, which was founded in 1989, has more than 175 different models of industrial robot. Recently the company has focused on integrated the ROS-Industrial software option onto its robots.

DENSO, Kariya, Japan iRobot, Bedford, Mass. IRobot’s commercial robotic systems have had applications everywhere from nuclear reactors to dusty floors. Arguably their most popular consumer model is Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner for the home. In April, utility company Progress Energy bought three of iRobot’s ground robots for use in the H.B. Robinson Nuclear Plant near Hartsville, S.C.

One of the world’s largest automotive parts manufacturers, DENSO has also pioneered manufacturing automation systems, including industrial robot arms, which it has built since the 1960s. It is also the world’s largest user of its own small assembly robots, which it uses to build its robotic products.

Honda Robotics, Tokyo

KUKA Robotics, Augsburg, Germany This Baviarian company has more than 20 subsidiaries worldwide, placing industrial robots on every continent save for Africa and Oceania. Publicly traded as KUKA AG, the company’s robots are used on production lines belonging to high-profile companies such as GM, Chrysler, Ford, Porsche, Harley-Davidson, Boeing, IKEA, Swarovski, Wal-Mart and Budweiser, to name a few. KUKA’s second quarter revenue for 2012 was $385 million.

Honda Robotics made headlines in 2011 when it unveiled the new, improved version of its ASIMO humanoid robot. The new robot can now use sensor inputs, intelligent prediction and past experience to autonomously handle situations without operator intervention.

Boeing, Chicago Aerospace giant Boeing delivers a variety of products in the robotics field, mostly for the defense, space and security markets. These include unmanned aircraft (some built by subsidiary Insitu), satellites and the mysterious X-37B spaceplane, which has been in orbit for over a year on a classified mission.

Epson Robotics, Suwa, Japan Epson Robotics, part of Seiko Epson Corp., develops autonomous technologies for information-related equipment, electronic devices and precision products. Its primary focus is industrial robotics.

Panasonic Robotics, Osaka, Japan

Toyota, Toyota City, Aichi, Japan Automotive giant Toyota counts robotics as just one of its activities. The company has been focusing on the elder care, manufacturing and entertainment markets with its robotic products. The company has been developing industrial robots since the 1970s, but started moving toward humanoid technology concepts in 2000.

Though likely most well known as a camera company, Panasonic Robotics formed as a unit of its parent company in 2008. It focuses on the manufacturing market sector through electronic assembly and arc welding. The company also has robotic products in medicine, like automated delivery systems and caretaking robots.

FANUC, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan FANUC Corp. is one of the largest manufacturers of industrial robots in the world. In 2009, it became the first manufacturer of industrial robots to receive equipment acceptance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for meat and poultry processing.

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Mad money: Investing in commercial robotics By Stephanie Levy


n almond’s an easy nut to crack, but it’s not as easy keeping acres of almond trees alive in the dry hills of northern California. Changes in temperature, heavy wind and bugs can make growing conditions far from golden. And if you have no way of effectively monitoring more than a dozen acres of almond trees, you run the risk of some of these trees dying off. That’s why Frank Tobe wants robots. Tobe, creator of The Robot Report — an online news site that tracks the business of robotics — says he’d use a small commercial unmanned aircraft to survey the acres of almond trees that he shares with other farmers. This would cut down on the number of damaged and dying trees, as well as human work hours. Tobe’s real-world problem addresses one of the myriad commercial areas where robots could tackle the dirty, dangerous, difficult and dull jobs that most people would prefer not to do. 16

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“All unmanned markets are in the early stages of their lifestyle, but there is strong commitment to their future operational integration,” Derrick Maple, principal analyst for IHS Jane’s Industry Research & Analysis on Aerospace & Defense, said during AUVSI’s “Bottom Line: Investing in Unmanned Systems” webinar. And with that commitment comes new investment opportunities. “At the end of the day the mission is the focus, and achieving this in a timely, safe and efficient way is of paramount importance,” Maple said. “Unmanned systems offer great innovation potential but affordability and flexibility will be the focus, with modular solutions being increasingly sought.”

How to succeed in business… Globally, there are approximately 250 publicly traded robot manufacturers that vary widely in their overall involvement in the industry. Tobe breaks down the companies

involved in commercial robotics into two main categories: “pure plays” and everyone else. “[Pure play] is a company that is directly involved in robotics, not incidentally,” Tobe elaborates. For example, Tobe writes in a blog post for The Robot Report that a company like iRobot, which makes military robotics but also has commercial systems like the Roomba for home use, would be considered a “pure play.” However, a company like John Deere may make a robotic lawnmower and smart tracking systems for agriculture, but these technologies are a small part of the company’s internal investment and operating profit. “The nonindustrial portion of the robotics industry is new and is where all the venture attention is focused,” he writes. But “compiling a list of pure-play stocks and picking favorites is complex and rigorous.” [For a broader list of robotic stocks compiled by Robotics Business Re-

view, see State of the Art on Page 14.] Tobe divides these nonindustrial robotic applications into three main applications: health care, defense and industrial. The healthcare field includes usual suspects like Intuitive Surgical; the company only makes the da Vinci Robotic Surgical System, and it is being installed in operating rooms of major hospitals around the world. Defense robotics proves more diverse and can also reach into security and space applications. Tobe points out that in this case, “Many of the major providers in defense, security and space do have robotics subsidiaries but are conglomerates where only a very small portion of their revenue is derived from robotics.” Finally, industrial robotics allows for many co-robot applications, in which a robot acts in direct support of, and in a symbiotic relationship with, a human coworker. Tobe looks to companies like KUKA and Adept Technologies as examples of this application. On an international scale, commercial robotics will evolve as investment opportunities out of university and start-up settings. Tobe writes that the current leaders in the field are the United States, Europe, Korea and Japan, with Chinese and Taiwanese markets rapidly developing. Within Europe, much of the commercial robotic activity is currently concentrated in Germany. And, ultimately, Tobe writes that while the U.S. is a pioneer in the industry, it is no longer the international leader. “It’s a sad story, but industrial robotics is no longer an American indus-



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In 2011, President Barack Obama introduced the National Robotics Initiative and highlighted the work RedZone Robotics has done in commercial robotics. Click here to see the president’s remarks.

try,” Tobe says. “America is not in the industrial robotics business, but they are in all areas of robotics, and they’re sort of the leader for the time being in our research facilities. … They are really the best in the world as it relates to robotics.”

The Foxconn effect But in the midst of all this development in commercial robotics, Tobe says there’s one wild card that could change the course of the industry: Foxconn Technology Group and its robotic fleet. In 2011, Foxconn announced a deal with Apple in which the company would use its robotic technology to assemble iPhones, iPads and other gadgets in China. The company had previously used human employees to make the devices. However, a 2012 investigation revealed questionable working conditions for some of these employees: Workers endured long hours in unsafe factories, one of which blew up, and 14 Foxconn employees committed suicide between 2010 and 2012. Despite all this, Tobe says Foxconn is a reputable company that’s trying to rectify these alleged workers’ rights violations. Part of that process is incorporating the new robots into

Apple plants, because “they will, in effect, save themselves from hiring additional people,” he says. Now, Foxconn boasts 1.2 million employees. The company has the stated goal of getting 300,000 robots on the market by the end of 2013 and 1 million robots by the end of 2015. Tobe says this development represents a new phenomenon in commercial robotics in which companies are investing their capital in developing user-friendly, plug-and-play robotics. With a plug-and-play system, a robotics manufacturer uses customizable, often off-the-shelf parts to create a system carefully tailored to the needs of the end user. Tobe says these robots are small, safe and easy to train with any human workers. “The big robotics companies do not make these elementary robots,” Tobe says. “The big companies’ stocks are being devalued by investors who are thinking Foxconn’s going to come along and wipe their tails.” Tobe says other robotics companies are collaborating to create their own plug-and-play systems, and they’re also ones to watch in the changing industry. Tobe says both Heartland

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Investing in Robotics — continued from Page 17 Robotics and Redwood Robotics, competitors in the plug-and-play arena, are planning to go public with new products in the coming months. Redwood has revealed plans in its first year to develop inexpensive robotic arms for personal service robots. Heartland Robotics confirmed that it will have a product by the end of 2012, and The Robot Report speculates that the company will launch its new co-robot product line at the Automate 2013 show in Chicago. However, Heartland Robotics would not confirm any plans for an IPO in the immediate future. Tobe says the robots these start-up companies are developing may be very similar to those made by Foxconn.

Technologies to TORC Robotics to better reflect its mission in the field. Along with the name change came a change to the company’s products. On 20 March, TORC announced that it had unveiled its new unmanned vehicle conversion kits, which allow users to configure by-wire, teleoperated and autonomous control on customer-selected ground robotics. “The kits have been more focused on Robotic Building Blocks and customers purchasing multiple products,” says Michael Fleming, cofounder and CEO of TORC. “What we’ve done is transition that such that a customer can come in and buy one kit rather than selecting five different Robotic Building Blocks.”

Building a better business Founded in 2005, Blacksburg, Va.based TORC Robotics specializes in its Robotic Building Blocks product line, which has applications across the commercial, civil and military arenas for unmanned systems. “We’re very product focused,” says Andrew Culhane, business development manager at TORC Robotics. “Even in the defense research and development world, those same common components to convert a military vehicle into an autonomous system usually apply in the commercial world.” At the beginning of the year, the company even changed its name from TORC 18

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TORC Robotics uses an XGV system to turn any manned vehicle into a robotic platform. AUVSI photo.

Fleming also told Mission Critical TORC plans to roll out a new autonomous military vehicle partnership within the next six months. He would not comment further. “We like to be at about 50-50, but right now we’re doing a little more military work than commercial work,” says Fleming. “Often what we see on the commercial side is they’re much more conscious of the price of production, and we have different standards on the military side.” Growing from a university setting gave TORC a unique advantage in talent when it first started. TORC hires many of its engineers, whom Fleming

says are “driven by innovation and changing the world,” straight out of Virginia Tech. Also, developing commercial robotics in a university setting allows for six-to-one research, which means researchers have more time to push the bleeding edge of innovation. Fleming says some of TORC’s researchers are working on projects that won’t wield commercial results for up to 20 years. “I think, strategically, investors are looking typically for a shorter return on investment,” Fleming says. “It’s making sure you can bridge the gap between developing innovative technology and solving a real-world problem.” In 2007, TORC used its commercial robotic technologies to tackle one of those real-world problems: vehicle safety. But they did so by taking a human driver out of the equation. TORC entered the DARPA Urban Challenge, which tasked teams to come up with a way to make a completely autonomous car navigate a 60-mile urban area course, including stoplights, traffic and other obstacles. TORC’s team, VictorTango, placed third out of the 89 in the overall competition. TORC created a ByWire XGV robotic platform for a modified 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid SUV. The system included TORC’s ByWire modules, SafeStop wireless emergency stop system and PowerHub power management, and distribution models, as well as lidar scanners and GPS. “I would think that as this autonomous technology is proven and becomes more reliable that those within the insurance community would potentially give discounts for those



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individuals who had vehicles with autonomous safety technology such as autonomous driving built in,” Fleming says. “Obviously, there would be fewer wrecks and fewer insurance payouts and everyone wins.” In January 2011, the company leveraged that same technology on the Escape for the National Federation of the Blind’s Blind Driver Challenge, where a blind driver went around the racetrack at Daytona International Speedway for the first time in history.

Joining forces TORC Robotics is currently an employee-owned company that focuses primarily on creating and justifying internal investment, but the company is open to finding new private and public partnerships in the commercial robotics industry. For instance, Fleming points out that the company has a strategic partnership with Caterpillar Mining to “to transition our



autonomous vehicle kits into mining applications such as open-pit mining.” “It’s very difficult to be an expert in anything, so when it comes to getting outside our typical areas of expertise, we’re always looking to partner,” Culhane says. In one of the biggest commercial robotics buyouts to date, online retailer announced in March that it acquired Kiva Systems Inc. for $775 million. The deal allowed Amazon to acquire all outstanding shares of Kiva stock, and it was finalized by the end of the second quarter. It’s the second largest acquisition ever by Amazon and the first one the company has made in the robotics industry. The deal finally closed on 2 May. Amazon will use Kiva systems to expand the use of automation in its fulfillment centers. By owning the systems needed to automate factory

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Watch Kiva Systems’ robotic factory system in action. Kiva will supply this technology to distribution centers.

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Investing in Robotics — continued from Page 19 work, and in turn get products out to consumers more quickly, analysts say Amazon can grow its profit margins, reduce costs and keep better track of customer orders.

Kiva has specialized in automation technology for distribution centers, factories and warehouses since the company’s founding in 2003 by Mick Mountz.

“Amazon has long used automation in its fulfillment centers, and Kiva’s technology is another way to improve productivity by bringing the products directly to employees to pick, pack and stow,” said Dave Clark, vice president, global customer fulfillment for, in a press release announcing the deal. “Kiva shares our passion for invention, and we look forward to supporting their continued growth.”

In February, Pittsburgh-based RedZone Robotics Inc. announced two new investing partnerships: a $6.5 million investment by investment company FourWinds’ Waste Resources Fund L.P. and a $2 million investment by Smithfield Trust Co. RedZone is a designer and manufacturer of wastewater inspection technologies for municipalities, con-



tractors and engineering companies, and the company says these new deals will expand its product offering and geographic reach. “New technology has clearly shown to be vital to advancements in every industry throughout the world, unfortunately the extent of technological innovation seen in other industries has bypassed our aging wastewater industry, which has for too long remained out of sight and, therefore, out of mind,” said Valérie

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TORC’s Ford Escape, outfitted with the company’s ByWire XGV. Photo courtesy TORC Robotics.


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Summer 2012

Daoud Henderson of FourWinds in a press release announcing the deal. “With innovative robotic inspection technology and asset management services, RedZone fills this innovation gap, allowing wastewater managers to fully understand their system in the most cost effective and efficient way.”

Commercial challenges As the commercial robotics industry grows, the pressure for a positive return on investment presents a new set of trials for the companies pushing this technology. Culhane says the challenge begins with finding good proving opportunities. “Look across the whole span of where robotics could have an impact,” Culhane says. “It’s very hard to identify those great opportunities. It’s not just the technology. It’s social adoption, risk aversion, return on investment and all those other business factors.” Next comes funding. Whereas the defense industry can afford to spend lots of money on research and development for projects that may take years to complete, the commercial sector doesn’t have that kind of freedom with money or time. “A lot of it is very product focused,” Culhane says. “Even in the defense research and development world there are those common components, those same common components to convert a military vehicle into an autonomous system, that usually apply in the commercial world.”

liability. That lack of standardization can turn off potential investors. “When you’re operating in a business where return on investment is key, any interruptions in production or productivity are huge,” he says. But at the same time, “a 1 percent increase in efficiency is a huge financial gain, and that’s where you can make your case.” On the developer’s side, Fleming says companies can overcome some of these obstacles by focusing on safety, reliability and ease of use as they roll out more autonomous robotic technology. “A lot of robotic development is being done within academic and government labs, and their criteria for success is a little different than industry,” Fleming says. “Often we have brilliant robot developers, and when we look at industry, often the end user isn’t a Ph.D. from engineering. They may be a high school graduate. We have to make sure that while the inner core of robotic technology may be complex, the outer wrapper — that user interface — is intuitive.” Another critical aspect is increasing the public acceptance of robotics in

the commercial sector. This acceptance may happen on four different levels, says Tobe. First, plug-and-play systems have the potential to get more robots into the hands of more users, regardless of their level of technological expertise. Next, the United States and other countries are working to get unmanned aerial systems into public airspace for commercial use; the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill signed by President Obama on 14 Feb. requires that the FAA develop a strategy to allow civil UAS in the National Airspace System by 2015.The automotive and medical sectors combine to create the third and fourth levels. They each will work to create “small, software-driven, but independent or autonomous,” systems, according to Tobe, that will increase safety and performance in both fields. “They don’t trust them yet, but they will, and there are always contingent events that force people to make action faster than they would have planned,” Tobe says.

Stephanie Levy is associate editor of Mission Critical.

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But Culhane says the commercial robotics industry still lacks comprehensive standards for safety and reMission Critical

Summer 2012


Science fiction to reality POP CULTURE CORNER


ou don’t have to look very far to find a world where humans and robots interact in the commercial marketplace with perfect synergy and human-robot interaction is a normal part of everyday life. Just go to the movies or open a book that got turned into a movie. Maybe one day our commercial robots will literally look like something out of a sci-fi flick.

Aimi Eguchi, robo-pop superstar In 2011, Japanese pop group AKB 48 introduced fans to its newest member, Aimi Eguchi. Her girl-next-door good looks and vocal chops made her a hit with fans. But Eguchi stood out from the rest of her bandmates, because she was actually a robot. Eguchi’s features are actually a digital composite of the faces of other human band members. This aesthetic fit well with the larger vision of the group’s producer Yasushi Akimoto, who envisioned the girls as a group of “idols you can meet everyday.” But it goes without saying that the group, and its fans, didn’t have a robot in mind as one of those idols. Almost as soon as Eguchi’s candy commercial debuted in Japan, heated debate started about whether or not she actually existed.

placed with similar fights between robots. Charlie, played by Hugh Jackman, controls one of these robots and uses it to fight in an underground league. And he does it badly. Losing match after match has left Charlie in debt. Finally, he and his son come across the remains of an obsolete robot model that they rehabilitate to fight again. In the end, Charlie’s robot can’t beat the reigning champion of robot boxing, but in a heartwarming turn of events, Charlie and his robot are named the “people’s champion.” For a sport in which no people are actually involved, it’s a happy ending for human-robot interaction.

‘Silent Running’ In this sometimes painfully earnest 1972 environmentalist flick, astronaut Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) has to tend a spaceborne forest, one of the last rescued from a dying Earth and kept alive in a huge dome orbiting Saturn. When Lowell is ordered to destroy the forests to return the spaceships to commercial service, he rebels and manages to save the last forest. He then tends to it with only the companionship of three squat little robots named Huey, Dewey and Louie.

The robots — portrayed by bilateral amputees in small robot suits, according to Wikipedia — display more personality than most of the humans in the film. Lowell teaches them to play poker, and at one point Dewey refuses to leave Huey’s side while the little robot is being repaired. In the end, only the forest survives, tended by a robot, shades of the several-decades-later movie “Wall-E.”

Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot The long-lived TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” inspired in part by “Silent Running,” features a hapless space janitor forced to watch bad movies while trapped on a spaceship for reasons that are not all that clear and don’t really matter. For companionship, Joel the janitor builds two robot companions out of spare parts: Tom Servo, a talking gumball machine, and Crow T. Robot, built from various items including a lacrosse racket. While there is not a lot of actual science involved here, sometimes you just want a robot friend or two to help you watch bad movies and crack jokes. The robots get most of the good lines.

‘Real Steel’ Float like a butterfly, sting like a bot. The 2011 flick “Real Steel” imagines a heightened reality with battle bots. Some time in the not-too-distant future, human boxing has been re22

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Chuck Thorpe Q&A

Former Assistant Director for Advanced Manufacturing and Robotics, Office of Science and Technology Policy


What are the main hurdles that you see to getting there?

Chuck Thorpe, the former assistant director for Advanced Manufacturing and Robotics in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, was the point of contact for President Barack Obama’s National Robotics Initiative. A professor of robotics, Thorpe was with Carnegie Mellon University for more than 30 years, and from 2000 to 2004 he was the director of The Robotics Institute. He recently became provost and senior vice president of Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y.

Chuck Thorpe. Photo courtesy OSTP.



A: Robots are already doing countless tasks for us — on the battlefield, in our factories, on the surface of Mars and increasingly in our homes and workplaces. Robots are natural complements to humans. Robots are capable of doing many tasks that humans can’t do or don’t want to do. Humans have impressive capabilities for high-level reasoning and planning. The NRI focuses on building robots to work together with humans as coworkers, coinhabitants, co-explorers and codefenders so that the human-robot combination will be more effective than either operating alone.

A: When the president announced the National Robotics Initiative in June 2011, he also launched the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership. The two are closely linked: The advanced manufacturing of the future will rely heavily on the fully integrated digital factory, including advanced industrial robots. Robots will increasingly be the smart, programmable tools that enable human workers to be even more productive than they are today and that allow factories to combine the economies of mass production with the ability to custom-tailor each order.

What is the main purpose of the National Robotics Initiative?

What role do you see robots playing in factories in the next decade or so?

A: Some of the hurdles are with individual robot designs — for instance building robots that are inherently safe, through advanced sensors and flexible actuators, so humans can work in close proximity to robots. The other, much larger, opportunity is in rethinking the entire manufacturing process to take advantage of the new tools. The factory of the future will use robots along with advanced materials, additive manufacturing, bio manufacturing and other new processes. Finally, all these new tools will require upgrading our workforce. This is not the factory of the past, with workers doing heavy lifting and dull repetitive tasks; the new jobs will be in programming and design. We’re working with community colleges to retrain yesterday’s factory workers to become tomorrow’s factory technicians and designers.


Many factories are at least semi-automated today with robots that help build cars, etc. What are the limitations of these systems, and why do we need to go beyond them?

A: Robots have proven their worth on the assembly lines. The first industrial robots were invented in the United States more than 50 years ago and were put to use initially in Mission Critical

Summer 2012


Q & A — continued from Page 23 low-resolution tasks, such as spray painting and spot welding. As robots have become more sophisticated and accurate, they have taken on more ambitious tasks, such as assembly. But most assembly-line robots still lack the sensing required for fine dexterity, the awareness needed to operate safely around human coworkers and the ease of reprogramming to allow them to be reconfigured for small batch production. Think of the challenge in telling a human-robot team, ”Here’s the furniture I just bought in pieces, along with the instructions; please figure out how to put it together.” That’s a level of capability that the NRI will work towards over many years.


Will there be sufficient federal funding to get there, or will the private sector need to step up, or both?

A: Both! Of course the government will provide funding for much of the basic research, and for priority projects in defense and other critical national needs. But it is also crucial that we unleash the creativity and drive of the private sector to let the marketplace find the most important opportunities and the most creative solutions. “Both” also refers to opportunities for partnerships: prizes and competitions, joint public-private partnerships, shared development of innovative new technologies.


The NRI includes cooperation from several agencies that run from NASA to the National Institutes of Health to the U.S.


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Department of Agriculture. Are there some commonalities between the technologies that each agency might require? A: The core NRI funding includes NASA, NIH, USDA and the National Science Foundation. Other agencies are also contributing; for instance the Office of the Secretary of Defense included a number of robotics projects in this year’s funding for its Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (DURIP). There are lots of commonalities across agency missions. Imagine building a dexterous robot gripper: It could be used for picking apples, or picking moon rocks or as a prosthetic hand. That’s why the NRI has proposals reviewed by all of the participating agencies and why the meetings of the investigators will be joint, so the agencies and the researchers can learn from each other. Other federal agencies that are not a core part of the NRI will be invited to the research review meetings so they can pick up basic research results and to encourage researchers to apply for more applied research in their specific areas of interest.


How would you characterize the state of robotics research in the United States?

A: Robotics research in the United States is extremely strong: The National Robotics Initiative has received many more excellent proposals than it will be able to fund. A major underpinning of our strength is that we let the best ideas flow up from the research community. The NRI is not narrowly prescriptive; it

lays out big themes and lets the best people come up with the best ideas and compete for funding. One of the keys to keeping robotics research in the United States vibrant and fresh is that most of the research funders come from the active research community. I would encourage researchers to consider spending time at NSF or DARPA or OSTP or another federal agency. Besides being a good way to give back to the community, it’s also an excellent means to help bring good ideas from the community into Washington.


How would you characterize the state of robotics research around the world?

A: We have excellent colleagues in robotics research in Europe, Asia, Australia and other parts of the world. In many cases, they are much more focused on one particular area than we are in the United States. Some countries have specific industrial policies with multiyear plans, trying to coordinate their robotics research to dominate one particular sector. If they pick the right sector, that approach can be very powerful, but it comes at the expense of not being flexible and not letting new ideas compete in the marketplace of funding and research.


What options for international cooperation are there with the NRI or other robotics initiatives?

A: The big problems of the world, from energy to security to prosperity, are global problems. These are arenas in which we can find ways to cooperate so we can all win. Parts of

the NRI funding are designed specifically to support U.S. research. But there are areas, like building robotics technology to respond to nuclear crises, where we are actively looking for the best solutions around the world.


What role do you see robots playing in our homes in the next 10 to 20 years, and will the NRI help us get there?

A: Our homes are some of the most difficult areas for robots, because they were not designed with automation in mind. Handling car parts in a factory is much easier than folding laundry or cooking a meal, and the price point for a successful home robot is much lower than for a military or industrial application. But when people find the right application, household robots can be powerful; currently there are about seven times more robot vacuum cleaners worldwide than all other robots combined. The NRI emphasis on safe robots, and on robot-human interaction, will be key to getting robots that will assist the elderly and perform useful tasks around the house.


What role can robotics play in promoting education, particularly for science, technology, engineering and math?

A: The great thing about kids working with robots is that they are learning science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — skills, and they don’t even realize it. The kids think they are just building cool robots! I’ve watched several kinds of robo-camps, robot clubs and robot

competitions, and the students are learning how to work together in groups, how to document their results, how to make presentations. Most important, they learn there is no such thing as a “right answer” or “wrong answer” — there is only a design that can be built, tested, taken apart and improved. Building a robot is a lot like the real jobs they will have in the future.


How do you see robots, and robot makers, transitioning to civil applications from other arenas?

A: It’s already well under way. Technology originally developed for the military for automated scout vehicles has now worked its way into

cars with adaptive cruise control and lane departure warnings. Underwater vehicle technology designed for military purposes is used for tracking oil plumes and doing oceanography. And unmanned air vehicles will soon be fighting forest fires and helping in search and rescue missions in bad weather and difficult terrain. It is happening gradually — so gradually that a lot of people may not notice. But if you are immersed in this field as I am and keep your eye out, you start to realize that robots — mostly friendly ones, to be sure — are all around us already. And they are surely going to be a bigger part of the everyday landscape in the years to come.

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Made in man’s image



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Six 111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011 and hands had four. other models of the EO were made by 011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011000111101111011101110111101 110111986111111101993111101 1 Honda between 1987 and 1993. 1011110110111011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 1101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 110111 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 110111011110111980101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11 Elektro 01111011011111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 110 Honda P1 Debuted at the World’s Fair, After Honda’s EO attempts 11110110111011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111 Elektro counted talking, walkcame the P1, for Prototype 110111 10101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 ing and smoking among its Model 1. The robot was the tricks. Built by Westinghouse 11000110111011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111 company’s first to have an ROBART Electric, the robot had 48 elec0111011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 1101 upper body and limbs. At Created as a school project at the trical relays that functioned like 1.9 meters tall, just over 6 11110110111011101111011101110111101 1101110111101110111011110111011101111011101110111101 110111011110111011101111 Naval Postgraduate School, ROBART the telephone switchboards of feet, and weighing a stagger- 110111 eventually supported a U.S. Navy pro010111011101111011101110111101 110111011111939 011101111011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 the time. Like Da Vinci’s robot, ing 385 pounds, the robot gram for mobile detection assessment Elektro used a pulley11011101111011101110111101 system to 10111101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 110111 could turn electrical switches response. The robot had two followmove, but also employed mo010101011011101111011101110111101 1 on, and off, pick up things, on versions. The first version could tors and vacuum tubes. The and turn doorknobs. Honda 110111011110110110111011 detect an intruder, the second could robot is currently on display at made three prototypes total, assess the situation, and the third 1101101110 the Mansfield Memorial Mu-






seum in Ohio.

could respond to an intrusion. Though all wheeled robots, all ROBARTs had torsos and heads, and the third variant had arm-like appendages.

completing its P3 research in 1997.


erhaps the ultimate commercial use for robotics, humanoid machines capable of man’s exact motions, reasoning and reactions is an end-goal for many roboticists. Dreams of having human-like machines to act as servants dates back as far as circa 250 B.C. China. But it was not until the last decade that buying a humanoid has become a viable option. There is still a long way to go until a robot can perform like a human, but here’s where history has lead the technology.

101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 1011110111011101111200101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 Updated ASIMO 110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 1011101111 Building on the company’s 25 years of humanoid re11101110111101 110111011110111011101111011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 101110111 search, Honda recently updated ASIMO, incorporat1111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 ing what the company calls “autonomous behavior control technology,” which will increase the robot’s HOAP-1 011110110111011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 101110111101 autonomy. It also has an expanded range of motion Fujitsu Automation Ltd. introduced a miniature human101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 in its legs and added balancing and control ability. oid, HOAP-1, for research and development use. An 101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 acronym for Humanoid for Open Architecture Plat101111011101110111101 1011101111011011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 10111011110110111011101 form, HOAP-1 came with simulation software that allowed for algorithm development for two-legged 110111101 11011101111011101110111101 10111011110110111011101111011101110111101 0111011101110111101110111011110 walking and human-to-robot communication interfac1101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 1011101111011011101110111101110111011110110100101001000111111 es. The robot, which stood at just one and a half feet 1011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11010001101111011101110111101 10111101 110111011110201111101110111101 tall, had joints with 20 degrees of freedom. 101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 10111011110110111011101111011101111 0111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 10111011110110111011101 1101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 10111011110110111 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 1011 Robonaut 2 While not a commercial plat1 11011101111011101110111101 110111011110111011111101 12010101111011101110111101 110111011110111011101111011010 form, Robonaut 2 did involve 101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 10111101 the know-how from compa1011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 10111 nies GM and Oceaneering 011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 101110 International. A follow-on to 1997’s Robonaut 1, which 1101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 110111011110111011101111010 never actually made a jour101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 101110111 ney into space, Robonaut 2 1101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 110111011110111011101111010 launched into orbit on a jour11101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 101110 ney to the International Space Station in February 2011. 101 11011101111011101200011101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 The robot, which consists of 1101 11011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 11011011011101111011101110111101 101110111101101110010 a torso, has a 40-pound pay101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 110111011111011101111011101110111101 load 11011101111011101110111101 capacity. It has 350 sen11011101111011101110111101 110111011110111011101111011101110111101 11011101111011101110111101 10110110111011110110 sors and 38 processors that ASIMO aid in its motion. 110110110111011110110110111011110110110111011110110110111011110110110111011110110110111011110 Dubbed “The World’s Most Ad1111011011011101111012005011011101111011011011101111011011011101111011011011101 vanced Humanoid Robot” by Hon1110110110111011110110110111011110110110111011110110110111011110110 da, ASIMO could move its two feet to walk at 3.7 mph, recognize ob11011101111011011011101111011011011101111011011011101111011 jects and interact with humans. Two 011011101111011011011101111011011011101111011011011 camera eyes allow the robot to es1011110110110111011110110110111011110110110 timate distance and direction. With 110111101101101110111101101101110111 REEM-A 26 degrees of freedom, the robot, Made by Spain’s PAL Robotics, the REEM-A humanoid which responds to human speech, 011011011101111011011011101111 had a penchant for pastimes. Designed to play chess stands at 130 centimeters tall 011011011101111110111101 against the Hydra chess engine, the robot also took part (about 4 foot 3 inches) and weighs 0110111011111110111 in the 2006 RoboCup competition in Bremen, Germany. 52 kilograms (115 pounds). 10110110111011 The robot was created for walking, manipulation, speech and vision adaptation. Two more variants of REEM have 110110110 been made since its initial platform. 11






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Summer 2012



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The view from Coptercam, an aerial photography company in Perth, Australia, that uses customized small unmanned systems to take pictures from a different point of view. This photo is of the South Perth foreshore. Photo courtesy Coptercam.

Helo beautiful Minicopters take the art of photography to the skies By Danielle Lucey


optercam officially opened for business 26 April. In four days, they had 20 film shoots. The Australian company’s founder, Hai Tran, thought using unmanned aerial vehicles for still and video photography would be merely a side job, but now with the company’s instant popularity, he says may have to rethink that. “We were expecting doing two jobs a week initially,” he says. The only thing currently holding the company

back is Perth’s rainy season, which lasts the winter through September.

platform for taking photos to gain a different perspective in his pictures.

“My two passions in life have always been flying and photos,” says Tran, who is an aviator by hobby.

“It didn’t seem like a feasible business, because any person from a

A year or two ago he had an idea to start using model aircraft as a mobile



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Mission Critical

Summer 2012


Aerial Photography — continued from Page 29

Coptercam on a photo shoot, scoping out houses for sale in Perth, Australia. Photo courtesy Coptercam.

model helicopter club, for example, or a model plane club, for example, could potentially put a camera on their aircraft and call themselves an aerial photography business.” Then about 11 months ago he found out the Civil Aviation and Safety Authority had mandated regulations about the commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles, requiring a license to fly, like most manned aviation businesses. This change in policy made Tran warm to the idea 30

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Summer 2012

of monetizing on his hobbies.

Making the airframe

“Well, now that there’s a regulation, … you can’t have the hobbyists strapping cameras to model helicopters and planes and doing it for … fun, so that gave me the business side of it [that it] actually was a potential feasible business to get into,” he says.

Going professional required a professional platform. Most pre-made air vehicles Tran encountered cost around $30,000, he says. “Very expensive, and unfortunately I don’t have that kind of money flying around for a business that may or may not succeed.”

He spent the past nine months prepping the company, creating his own platforms, securing the proper licensing and now flying much more than he initially bargained for.

After a lot of research, Tran bought a few airframes and control boards, likely spending about $20,000 on his

own trial and error process — “You name it, I’ve tried it,” he says. From there Tran devised his own mix of sensors and platform. He uses a carbon fiber multicopter frame from Droidworx, a New Zealand company, paired with a Mikrokopter flight control board from Germany and an AV 200 camera gimbal. To ensure the copter wouldn’t lose stability if a motor went out, Tran opted for an octocopter instead of a more traditional quadcopter. He uses a digital SLR camera to shoot his footage.

model. And it was a long one despite the fact that he is already certified as a manned aircraft pilot. In Australia you have to train on a specific UAV and demonstrate you have flown a certain number of hours safely with that aircraft, says Tran. To be approved for commercial use, he had to submit a full risk assessment, an operations manual

and other documentation to prove he had a “competent business,” he says. Finally, CASA needed to witness his flight protocol and he had to demonstrate a safe mission. “[It’s] Pretty much the same process a normal aviation business would go through to get certified,” he says. That whole process took about nine months.

“It was a lot of mistakes along the way,” he says. “There were a lot of things I had to learn in terms of because I wasn’t getting an off-theshelf system.” As far as he knows he’s the first Droidworx platform operator in the world that can fly with air authority approval. Coptercam currently owns a fleet of three aircraft, a bonus both because it helps the company keep up with demand, but also the cost of creating the three was similar to purchasing one aircraft off the shelf, says Tran. Out of a request by a number of people, he’s started selling these assembled platforms as a side business function of Coptercam and has sold two or three, he estimates. His most recent sale is to a company in Jakarta, Indonesia, where there is an open skies policy on flying commercially.

Passing with flying colors To get certified by CASA, Tran says it was a two-part process of certifying both the pilots and the business

The Coptercam platform has eight motors to add redundancy and reliability. Photo courtesy Coptercam.

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Summer 2012


Aerial Photography — continued from Page 31 Coptercam had its final CASA assessment assessment in April.

onstrated communications between the pilot and the cameraman.

The company currently employs two pilots, Tran as a part-timer and his employee Jason Glatzer, who both have UAV controller certificates. Jason also had a pilot’s license prior to Coptercam.

“We don’t have to operate a twoman crew, but having one guy fly the aircraft while the other guy concentrates on pointing the camera and getting the right shot means that we can ensure at all times that the pilot is eyeing the helicopter … and that any low-flying helicopters or power lines are not going to interfere with the operations of the copter.”

“I guess that helped us comply with a lot of requirements,” Tran says. “We also have a better appreciation of the nervousness, I guess, of the civil aviation authority letting model aircraft work commercially.” Coptercam submitted about 200 pages of documentation to CASA, detailing the company’s operations, maintenance and general procedures. CASA only responded with one suggestion, and Coptercam never had to resubmit its paperwork. Not getting certified on the first attempt is an expensive failure in Australia, with each application fee costing 5,500 Australian dollars ($5,375). The actual assessment occurred on a day with 25-knot winds, a scenario that made Tran nervous, he says, despite that he’s flown in similar wind before. The process is detailed, he says, and operational protocol can be as exacting as to say when in the process the camera is turned on. “I guess because Jason and I were real pilots, it was pretty much like normal,” he says of the minutiae. The assessment went very smoothly, he says. In addition to demoing their preflight procedures, the crew identified possible areas that required obstacle avoidance, and they dem-


Mission Critical

Summer 2012

They also had to demonstrate how the multicopter could return to base and land itself in the event of a communications hiccup. Through CASA’s approval, Tran is also certified to train others to become UAV pilots on his platforms, yet another portion of Coptercam’s business. Now that Coptercam is an authorized UAV business, Tran says there’s no limit to the other kinds of commercial use ideas he’s been approached with. “Everyone I speak to reckons that this is fantastic idea, and they’ve always got suggestions on what we can do,” he says. “I’ve had people say you can use it for shark patrol.”

And once when a local news crew interviewed Tran, they made a deal that if they ever needed an aerial shot, Coptercam could shoot footage for them. Though there are many uses for the system outside of the photography business, Coptercam still has to battle a number of illegal fliers that are giving the commercial photography UAV business a bad name in the area, he says. “I approached a number of photography companies in West Australia that had a very good reputation for delivering real estate photos. … When I first approached them the real estate companies they said to me, ‘Yeah, we really haven’t been very happy with this in the past.’ And I asked them, well why? And they said, ‘Well, we had about four people before you offer us aerial photography using model aircraft, and the photos are terrible.’” Sometimes these illegal companies would fail to take a photo of the correct house, says Tran. Additionally, they would charge up to around $500 per job, which Tran says is “on the premium side.”

Australia has another zoological issue. Some want Tran to use his copters to monitor local foxes, an invasive species in the area.

“There’s a lot of cowboys out there, and the problem is that there’s people out there who are worried about privacy and safety already, and the last thing this new industry needs is cowboys who are willing to essentially lie to their customers. They basically still treat their model aircraft as toys and put the aircraft in dangerous situations.”

Others have suggested he take agriculture or mine photos to get a 3-D map from elevation.

Faced with initial local opposition, Tran offered businesses free demos of Coptercam’s work, photographing

At the moment, Perth uses manned aircraft to spot great white sharks — a pressing matter since the city has had four attacks in the area in the last 12 months.

houses on a hillside that would be difficult to shoot without aerial photography. “We showed it to them, and they said, ‘Fantastic. We love it. When can you start?’” he says.

Getting a shot Stateside, aerial photography companies are still patiently awaiting approval to tap into this booming business opportunity. HeliMalibu got its start a year and a half ago, initially operating in Peru, where company founder Daniel Garate is from. Both he and HeliMailbu’s operations manager, Giancarlo Ushella, have worked in film before, Garate as a videographer and cinematographer and Ushella as a production assistant and cameraman. Garate had seen some online videos of people experimenting with aerial UAV photography and was intrigued to try it himself. Ushella helped him

start up the company and focused on the business and marketing end. HeliMalibu got the idea to work on California real estate by perusing magazines and finding there were few aerial photos of houses in the area. “You see these tremendous, $8, 9, 10 million homes, and you don’t see any real great photographs from the air,” say Ushella. “Most of the magazines, only one out of 100 homes were being shot form the air. And we knew those guys were using big helicopters that were expensive, so we thought it would be a great market to approach that would work really well with the technology.” The pair contacted a Malibu Realtor they knew, asking if he knew of any great homes in need of bird’s eye shots. “He was more than happy to let us be his guinea pig,” he says.

However, in January, the Los Angeles Police Department issued a warning to photography and videography companies using UAVs to take photos of real estate. “The LAPD has never spoken to us directly,” says Ushella. “They did send out a warning to all the Realtors not to use companies like ours.” With the U.S. market on hold, the company has focused its efforts in South America and Mexico, often doing much more than real estate photography. “Music videos, short clips for independent movies, car chase scenes or what not. … Actually the projects that pay the most are the ones in the movie industry,” says Ushella. Many of the company’s clips have appeared on Spanish-speaking television channels, though the company’s copter was used for a dance scene in the movie “Moves” and for a clip in a Red Bull commercial.

A sample of HeliMalibu’s aerial photography work. Photo courtesy HeliMalibu.

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Summer 2012


Aerial Photography — continued from Page 33 The platforms employed by HeliMalibu, like Coptercam, are a collection of parts the company calibrated until the blend was right. HeliMalibu’s main platform is a Cinestar Hexacopter frame. They use a three-axis gyroscope to get a steady shot with their cameras. Typically the company uses its own cameras, but if there is a larger film shoot, they adapt the camera mount to the project, up to a maximum of 6 pounds for now.

looking to enter the aerial photography business, he has a warning for newcomers.

the Federal Aviation Administration allowing small commercial UAV flights.

“It’s a lot harder than it looks,” says Ushella. “I know a lot of people contact us not wanting us to work for them but wanting to purchase the helicopter, and I always tell them the same thing. Unless you know how to take it apart and put it back together, it’s not really a viable option to just purchase one all ready to fly.”

“We hope they don’t drag their feet on coming out with these regulations and allowing the business to move forward,” he says. “We don’t have any problem with them regulating it. We just want it to be done quickly and for it to be reasonable and fair.”

Though Ushella knows a lot of companies are starting to offer these ready-to-fly helicopters for people

Although HeliMalibu is keeping busy outside of the United States, Ushella says the company looks forward to

Danielle Lucey is managing editor of Mission Critical.

HeliMalibu’s Cinestar Hexacopter platform in flight. The company hopes to resume commercial stateside work after FAA authorization. Photo courtesy HeliMalibu.


Mission Critical

Summer 2012

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It’s the technology, stupid Leveraging technology to keep humans relevant in the job market


here are a lot of reasons economists hypothesize are to blame for the United States’ less than stellar unemployment rate: globalization, class income gaps and cyclicality, to name a few. But Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT, authors of recent eBook “Race Against the Machine,” have a different theory to add to the mix: technology. The book argues that we’re in the middle of a major cultural shift that will invalidate many areas of human employment but ultimately will lead society toward a technology-rich, beneficial future. McAfee, in a radio interview with George Mason University, said while many are analyzing the current economy, he and Brynjolfsson found little talk of how increased reliance on digital information was possibly a factor. “We looked at these two trends and said, these are not happening despite each other. ... The shortest way to summarize the main thesis of the book is that the average worker is being left behind by cutting-edge technologies.” Just like the Luddites, who took hammers to the mechanized looms that edged them out of the textile industry, the book argues a similar revolution is currently under way. However, the high rate of technological change, commonly cited in Moore’s Law, means that some humans may be left in the dust versus the race against machines.


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Summer 2012

McAfee and Brynjolfsson write that some who believe the U.S. is in a stagnation trend believe the pace of technological innovation has slowed. “The root of our problems is not that we’re in a Great Recession, or a Great Stagnation, but rather that we are in the early throes of a Great Restructuring.” Among the pair’s many examples of ways machines have started to outpace humans are the accuracy of the Google driverless cars and Watson, the computer that can beat the best “Jeopardy!” contestants and also aims to diagnose maladies in the medical field. Among the future possibilities of a technology-heavy economy are cheaper goods, higher productivity and ultimately more time away from work. “The economics of digital information, in short, are the economics not of scarcity but of abundance. This is a fundamental shift, and a fundamentally beneficial one.” Though the short-term effects of this great economic restructuring will mark a potentially turbulent shift, ultimately the authors believe this change will bring about a higher quality of life for those willing to shift with the trend.


sharp changes in the path of human development and history. The twists and disruptions will not always be easy to navigate. But we are confident that most of these changes will be beneficial ones, and that we and our world will prosper on the digital frontier.” The key to overcoming the race, explains the book, is to leverage these machines to further human ability. The book illustrates this with the advent of freestyle chess tournaments, where humans and computers can team in any variety of ways to win matches. While computers started outpacing the brightest chess masters in the 1990s, this combination allows humans to leverage the technology to better their performance. The winners are not the best chess players, but average players who have the best processes in place to take full advantage of their computer’s intelligence. And any modern Luddites may face a similar dilemma to their predecessors. “They recently asked a human grand master how he would prepare for a match against a computer,” said McAfee to GMU radio. “And he said he’d bring a hammer.”

“And like each of the first two [industrial revolutions], it will lead to



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From HERB to Rosie: Developing the robots of the future

Testing is a huge part of the activities occurring in the lab on a daily basis, and according to Srinivasa it is a critical component of the development process.

By Lindsay Voss

HERB picks up drinks to deliver during an all-day event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.


he idea of commercial robots conjures up images of the Jetson’s lovable Rosie and C-3PO of “Star Wars” fame. But how far away are we from having robots assist us in real life? When will these machines fold laundry, cook dinner and become family members rather than screens and circuit boards? And, most importantly, how will commercial robots be designed, developed and tested to meet the needs of their human counterparts? The Personal Robotics Lab at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh is working to answer these questions and many more. The state-of-the-art lab founded by Prof. Siddhartha Srinivasa in 2006, with funding from Intel Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Mellon Quality of Life Technologies National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center, is dedicated to the development of robotic technologies that will function in human environments. The lab’s research is based on its Home Exploring Robot Butler platform, also known as HERB, and it is home to approximately 12 students, most of who are working toward their undergraduate or graduate degrees in robotics. The primary area of research for the Personal Robotics Lab is manipulation, particularly the manipulation of objects in real-world environments such as the home. In 2006, Srinivasa realized that manipulation was the next big frontier in robotics. He also saw an opportunity for robotics to improve the quality of life for the elderly and disabled. Over the last six years, he and his students have worked with the HERB platform to develop and test an array of algorithms to improve the ability of robots to perceive, navigate, manipulate objects and interact in environments outside of the traditional lab.


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Summer 2012

“As soon as we begin putting robots in the home, there is the expectation that these systems will be robust,” he says. “A robot assisting an elderly person cannot fail, and it’s only after we’ve tested these systems numerous times over the course of many days that we will see failures that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.” Developing and testing with HERB has been an incremental process. The platform was initially called Busboy and was comprised of a Barrett WAM arm bolted to the ground coordinated autonomously with a Segway RMP 200. The system was capable of serving drinks, but not providing assistive care or more complex tasks. HERB 1.0, the more advanced system following Busboy, was the lab’s first integrated mobile manipulation platform featuring a manipulator arm. HERB 2.0, the lab’s latest version of the platform, features two manipulator arms and has the ability to pick up objects, avoid obstacles, offer an object to a person, and put an object away. HERB has even mastered the art of preparing a microwave dinner, all of which are tasks well suited for a home assistance robot. The story of HERB is quite exceptional, given that he went from completing very minor tasks to accomplishing complex household chores in six years. HERB can “see” with

the assistance of onboard cameras, while a Microsoft Kinect sensor and a laser allow him to identify objects. He can also “feel” using tactile sensors, which can sense pressure and impact similar to human skin. Even more impressively, HERB has the ability to learn by repeatedly conducting tasks and by watching people complete tasks and mimicking their actions.

Getting out of the lab Despite HERB’s progress and extraordinary capabilities, the road to in-home assistance robotics is not without a few challenges. According to Srinivasa, the major hurdle between HERB becoming a member of an everyday household is transitioning the robot from the lab to the home. The true test for most technologies involves their ability to function in the real world, and robots are no different. A simple task such as microwaving a meal in the lab becomes much more complex in a kitchen with dirty dishes on the counter, toys strewn on the floor and humans wandering around. Srinivasa quickly recognized the need to test HERB in an environment as close to an actual home as possible, and he had a kitchen constructed in

Personal robots like HERB, here seen with Ph.D. student Anca Dragan, are expected to perform useful manipulation tasks in the home in close proximity to humans.

HERB microwaves a meal in the Personal Robotics Lab kitchen during an all-day demonstration celebrating National Robotics Week.

the lab to create a more realistic environment for HERB’s testing. HERB “works” or runs demos in the kitchen all day, completing day-to-day tasks repeatedly so that any flaws can quickly be identified and corrected. Srinivasa says that having regular humans interacting with HERB is a large part of his testing and development process as well. To create an even more realistic setting, HERB participates in user studies featuring a broad demographic of people who interact with the robot throughout the course of a day. These studies provide Srinivasa and his students the opportunity to observe HERB working with everyday people in a real-world setting. The feedback they receive is unbiased and, according to Srinivasa, incredibly helpful in identifying HERB’s strengths and weaknesses. Testing HERB via usergroup studies also allows Srinivasa and his team the opportunity to see how study participants perceive HERB, and it helps to identify user groups that will readily accept the technology. “Older people are used to older technologies, and this can make them hesitant to accept a robot,” Srinivasa says. “But injured veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan are very accepting. They are used to do-

ing new things, and they recognize that these technologies will be able to help them.” So how far away are we from having HERB in our kitchen? According to Srinivasa it could still be a while. The testing process for HERB is a rigorous one, and he will need to prepare many more microwave dinners and navigate cluttered kitchens before becoming commercially available to the average consumer. But the technologies integrated on HERB will most likely be available in our homes much sooner. Srinivasa says that many of these technologies won’t look like robots at all, but will be integrated into our appliances. Someday soon our refrigerators will identify an almost empty carton of milk and send a notice to the grocery store for more. Srinivasa is witnessing these advancements every day in his test kitchen, and it’s just a matter of time before they are available in the average home in America and around the world. “We are getting there, and in our lifetimes we will see robots on our homes,” he says. “We’re still far away from the promise of Rosie, but we’re closer than we originally thought we were.” Lindsay Voss is senior program development manager for AUVSI.

Mission Critical

Summer 2012


Keepon rocking:

Bouncy toy bot leads to breakthroughs in understanding autism By Stephanie Levy


arly detection and intervention is key for any parent with a child on the autism spectrum. Symptoms such as delayed verbal development, lack of eye contact, and difficulty following social and visual cues can start before a child even reaches preschool. The current edition of the “Diagnostic and Statical Manual of Mental Disorders” breaks these problems down into social, linguistic and imaginative impairment; typically, a child must exhibit all three impairments before a doctor can diagnose autism. Now, robotics can play a unique role in breaking down the barriers between children with autism and the world around them. Keepon, a small, squishy yellow robot designed by BeatBots, has been used in play with children with autism as part of efforts to understand and, ultimately, improve the social, linguistic and imaginative skills in these kids. Keepon looks like a stumpy snowman; its head and body are two balls of soft silicone rubber stacked on top of each other. Together, Keepon’s head and body can change forms when it moves on its own or when someone touches it; it has four degrees of freedom. Keepon’s eyes are actually tiny cameras, and its nose acts as a microphone.

“Keepon … has a minimal design for facilitating exchange of attention and emotions with people, especially babies and toddlers, in simple and comprehensive ways,” researchers from Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology and Omihachiman-City Day-Care Center for Children With Special Needs wrote in the 2007 article “Children-robot interaction: a pilot study in autism therapy,” which ran in the journal Progress in Brain Research. Through Keepon’s “eyes,” researchers were able to capture incredible improvements in the interactions between child and robot, from the first-person perspective of the robot itself. For instance, researchers tracked one 3-year-old girl who had been diagnosed with autism and

moderate mental retardation. Over the course of five months, the little girl played with Keepon in therapeutic sessions, group activities and free playtime. In total, the little girl interacted with Keepon in 15 sessions. At first, researchers write that the child “avoided being looked at directly by Keepon (i.e., gaze aversion); however, [she] gradually approached it from the side and looked at it in profile.” All of this interaction typically took place from more than two meters away. By the end of her eleventh session with Keepon, the little girl would move closer to the robot, and she “began acting exploratively with Keepon, such as looking into its eyes, waving her hand at it and listening to its sound.” At first, the little girl appeared to be afraid of Keepon, this strange and

Its “guts” may be mechanical and minimalist, but on the outside Keepon resembles a plush children’s toy. All photos via Progress in Brain Research.

where they exchanged with adult caregivers pleasure and surprise they found in Keepon,” they wrote. “Qualitative and quantitative analysis of these unfolding interactions suggests that autistic children possess the motivation to share mental states with others.”

A young girl interacts with Keepon during preliminary trials. Keepon later moved to a daycare center for children with developmental disorders, particularly autism spectrum disorders.

foreign new object. But gradually, curiosity took hold and eased her fear. She even started engaging in tactile play with the robot. When she saw another little boy put a paper cylinder on Keepon’s head, the girl motioned for a caregiver to do the same. About halfway through the experiment, the little girl started touching Keepon, first with a xylophone stick and then with her hand, for the first time. By the end of the study, she had even kissed the robot. “Keepon’s simple appearance and actions helped the autistic children … to sense social contingency, or presence of a ‘mind,’ in its attentive and emotive actions,” the researchers wrote. But not all the kids played nice. In one instance, a little boy diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome with mild mental retardation was at first violent with Keepon; he would knock the robot over and make bizarre facial expressions at the robot in an attempt to scare it. But violent actions turned into protection of, and ultimately care for, Keepon. By the end of the study, the little boy inter-

acted with Keepon as if it were a person. He would ask the robot if it was enjoying snack time or if it was sick when it wore a flu mask. In the end, the researchers were able to conclude that the children with autism were able to approach Keepon and gradually engage in physical and social play, sometimes with a third party like a therapist or parent in the room. In terms of medical advancement, the team concludes this proves that “the missing motivation” for children with autism to engage in and enjoy interpersonal reaction doesn’t exist. “The children spontaneously approached Keepon and engaged in dyadic interaction with it, which then extended to triadic interactions

But from a robotics perspective, the study proves two important points. First a simple robotic interface allowed children with autism to mimic crucial social interactions, namely eye contact, that they could then build on with their peers. If the child isn’t afraid to make eye contact with the robot, then maybe he won’t be afraid to make eye contact with a person. Also, this commercial robotic technology has a real-world use outside of the lab setting. It can teach children with autism how to interact with people and objects, and it can teach families and doctors how to act with a child during early intervention. “The ‘story’ has been accumulated as video data, which is being utilized by therapists, psychiatrists and pediatricians at the day care center to help plan their therapeutic intervention,” the researchers wrote. Stephanie Levy is associate editor of Mission Critical.

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Mission Mission Critical Critical


Summer Winter 2011 2012


Giving the industry a firm (robotic) handshake TECHNOLOGY GAP


n 15 Feb., a humanoid robot held out its hand and made history.

Robonaut 2 stuck out its arm and shook hands with Dan Burbank, commander of the station, marking the first such human-robot handshake in space. The robot then used its hands to sign “Hello, world,” in American Sign Language, showing off its dexterous capabilities.

The ability to grip things is one of the key components to building commercial robots that can work alongside humans in factories and help people in their homes. Much study has gone into helping robots respond to human commands. Researchers have created a variety of systems to do that, from using laser pointers to the spoken word. There’s another issue as well, though

— how well can the robots carry out a task once they’ve understood it? Here, one issue is object manipulation. If you need a robot to grab something and bring it to you, whether it is lifesaving medication or a cold beer, how well can it achieve that task? “A lot of emphasis now is on using arms and hands to move out and grasp things,” says Dan Kara, a ro-

Netzer Electric Encoders’ chief technology officer, Yishay Netzer, shakes hands with Robonaut 2 on the ground, before the robot learned how to do that in space. Photo courtesy Netzer Electric Encoders.


Mission Critical

Summer 2012

botic trends expert, who discussed robotic technology challenges in a Robotics Summit 2011 virtual online conference. DARPA is interested in this as well, recently unveiling progress on its Autonomous Robotic Manipulation program, which seeks software to allow robotic arms to perform “human-level” tasks rapidly and with minimal direction. The DARPA ARM is built from commercial components by Pittsburgh’s RE2, the systems integrator. Ultimately, DARPA plans to allow students, companies and even hobbyists to test their own software on the ARM. Researchers from Germany’s Saarland University, along with colleagues in Italy, recently wrapped up a four-year program to develop a sensitive robotic hand, one that uses tiny strings twisted by electric motors for movement. It’s strong enough to lift moderately heavy loads but delicate enough to hold a raw egg without breaking it.

Robonaut 2

Some of Robonaut’s dexterity is made by the continued miniaturization of arm components. An example is the rotary encoder, which measures movement and location. Robonaut 2’s encoders were provided by Netzer Electric Encoders, a small company based in Israel, which provided 10 encoders for each hand, three in the neck and two in the torso. “In terms of the safety and connectivity of the Robotnaut, he can safely operate with any person around him without hitting him or losing motion control,” says Jacob Hefer, Netzer’s CEO. Electrical encoders are one system that helps dexterous robots work without requiring extensive maintenance and without being sensitive to shocks and vibrations, as earlier systems were, Hefer tells Mission Critical. Military markets remain high, but as prices come down for these systems, they will make their way into medical and industrial robots, he predicts. That is actually one impetus for creating Robonaut in the first place —

General Motors would like to have robots on shop floors that can work alongside humans and don’t have to be sectioned off in cages.

Progress More progress is expected in the future as robotic systems continue to make their way into mainstream life. The 2009 roadmap for U.S. Robotics, produced by a consortium of universities led by Georgia Tech, concluded that “robot arms and hands will eventually out-perform human hands.” Many challenges remain to reach that point. “Pressing problems in this area include adequate sensors and associated perceptual capabilities, dexterous hands and safe manipulators, planning under uncertainty, advanced control, skill learning and transfer, and modeling and simulation,” the roadmap concludes. Eventually, robotic hands and arms could include skin-like tactile sensors, although currently, “we lack the algorithms to process the data from such sensors.”

One recent example of how grasping technology can lend a hand, even at extremely high altitudes, is Robonaut 2, the product of a joint venture of NASA and General Motors. Robonaut 2 launched earlier this year on the last flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery. It’s a robotic torso intended to take over some tasks for the human occupants of the station. One of the first is to hold a gauge over station ventilation ducts to make sure they aren’t clogged, something that requires a steady hand.



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Mission Critical

Summer 2012


A new kind of pilot

Aviators take themselves out of the aircraft

Aviation students at Northwest Michigan College build UAVs for competition as a hobby. Photo by Stephanie Levy.


hen it comes down to it, we’re geeks.”

On first glance, Northwestern Michigan College student Jeb Bailey fits the bill. Tall and lanky, with thinrimmed glasses and long curly brown hair matted under a baseball cap, his eyes light up when he describes the technology behind the unmanned aerial vehicle he and his teammates are flying for the first time as part of the AUVSI Foundation’s Student Unmanned Air Systems (SUAS) 2012. It’s especially fascinating to Bailey because he’s not a tech guy. He and his 10 fellow teammates all have backgrounds as commercial pilots. Bailey got into building and flying unmanned aircraft after flying remote controlled planes as a hobby. “We got really into this because we could see where aviation is going,” Bailey says. “It’s not going to be too long before aircraft are unmanned, but at the same time it takes just as many people to fly an unmanned aircraft as it does a manned aircraft. We want to be in on that.” This year, Bailey says his team was able to find two of the targets laid


Mission Critical

Summer 2012

out on the competition course. This year’s teams had to image smaller targets on the ground below, as well as locate and fly over a ground sensor that transmitted a cone of information up to the sky. Each target was a different shape and color, with a unique alphanumeric code. As commercial pilots, Bailey says his team brings a unique skill set to SUAS. Bailey and his teammates are used to completing a highly regimented checklist before taking off for manned flight. He says they hoped to bring that area of resource management to unmanned systems, and it paid off with the SUAS judges. SUAS was also a learning opportunity for Bailey and his teammates. He says the team came away from the competition with good ideas for improvement. “We really need to go outside our program and find a computer programmer. We need to do a lot more camera testing. We did some, but then we didn’t have time to make any changes. And we really need to get with someone who knows how to write a good technical paper.”


In the meantime, Bailey says Northwest Michigan College is also looking at the team’s involvement in unmanned systems as a learning opportunity. Currently, Northwest Michigan College has a 40-year-old manned aviation program. Now the university is looking to incorporate classes in UAS as an offshoot of the manned program. The school is also putting together a robotics program. “We’re starting to get excited because that’s the perfect combination there with our unmanned program possibly becoming a full degree program at some point,” says Bailey. In the end, Bailey says these steps will pay off as more government and commercial industries look to use UAS safely and effectively. As the Federal Aviation Administration looks to create new rules allowing UAS in the national airspace by September 2015, Bailey says he anticipates that a lot of the regulations that are put in place will require prior knowledge of how to work with manned aircraft. “A lot of companies are looking for that commercial pilot certificate or even a CFI [certified flight instructor] to fly unmanned aircraft,” he says. “[SUAS] is kind of the perfect opportunity to put what we know to the test, and see what we are doing wrong and what we’re doing right, and test that against people who really do know what they’re doing. … It’s not so much a competition as it is almost like a rodeo where every team wants to see everyone else do the best they can.”



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