This week, on the way to the first robotic conference in New York City, I felt a wave of déjà vu bringing me back to the early days of the Internet when trade shows were held in the dungeons of the Javits Center. Riding the escalator down, the excitement was palpable among the hundreds of leading innovators, scientists, and investors gathered. For my readers that missed this historic event, below is a quick recap:
The first evening, we held a startup competition that included a wide gamut of the burgeoning industry, from soft robotic grippers to autonomous construction drills to sensor programming platforms. The big winner of the competition was Voxel8, a novel prototyping machine that prints a matrix of materials such as “thermoplastics and highly conductive silver inks enabling customized electronic devices like quadcopters (above), electromagnets and fully functional 3D electromechanical assemblies.”
The next day Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, addressed the audience. iRobot is one of the most successful public robotic companies to date, with its fleet of robotic vacuum cleaners, mobile telepresence devices, and military PackBots. Since launching Roomba in 2002, over 10 million units have been sold worldwide, creating a $3 billion robo-vacum market. Now that its robots have been adopted by millions of households, Angle believes they are ready to map out our lives (or homes) while simultaneously sucking up dog hair. According to his presentation, these maps will be able to infer our “predictable behavior” to connect to other IoT devices and anticipate our needs. Yes, one day soon, you will come home from a hard day’s work to have a cold one delivered into your hands à la Roomba.
Following Angle, his former CTO, Rodney Brooks of Rethink walked on stage. Introduced by MC Francis Rabuck as the godfather of robotics, Brooks titled his presentation as “Robots Among Us” (while debunking Hollywood’s techno-paranoia). Clearly, Baxter and Sawyer, are working “among us,” leaving their industrial cousins in their dark cages. These machines are part of a new line of cooperative robotic arms with grippers to speed up production, warehousing, and distribution. Brooks reminded the industry that it is important to deliver on the promise of efficiency to enter the next phase of revolutionizing bots for small and midsize businesses with automation. After his talk, one could walk the small (but well curated) exhibit hall to meet Baxter firsthand, along with Universal Robots’ product line. On the last day of the show, it was announced that Rethink’s competitor, Universal Robotics, was acquired by Teradyne for $350 million (a nice endorsement to the nascent market).
Following the morning’s keynotes, I walked over to hear a workshop on Driverless Cars. While there were more chairs than people in the room, the quality of my fellow participants was impressive (I even met an inventor of a flying car – chitty, chitty – bang! bang!). While I have written extensively about the companies pursuing the next wave of automobiles, these panels were able to break-down the variety of platforms being deployed by Google, Mercedes and others. On the left is a screen shot of the Google Chauffeur brain, making realtime decisions using LIDAR sensors, radar, and visioning systems. In addition to the input into the ECU, we discussed Vechicle-2-Vechicle and Vechicle-2-Infrastructure communications. There were a lot of big questions that were left unanswered, such as security and regulatory approvals. I hope that by the next RoboUniverse, we will hear directly from Google’s Chauffeur team in addition to other car companies. While all of us were taking bets on the date of mass deployment, Shahin Farshchi of Lux Capital reminded us we are already driving semi-autonomous vehicles today. The critical need for automation in the transportation space was underlined later that evening by the tragic Amtrak derailment.
The first day was capped off by Stephen Wolfram and his computing system. There are few times in your life when you meet an actual genius on the level of Hawkings and Einstein, this was one of those times. Wolfram is more than an physicist, he is a philosopher that is molding our AI future. His software Wolfram Alpha Pro is a monumental shift forward in computing. However, what I enjoyed most about his keynote were his thoughts on a “post-linguistic” world when machines will be using sensors and AI to describe things back to us. Hawkings and Musk decry the fears of AI, while Wolfram embraces its “randomness” to discover new galaxies (below is a recent TedTalk that was very similar to our discussion).
The next day we heard from the new dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering, Vijay Kumar. Kumar, whom I met several years ago, is an innovator of drone swarm behaviors. Besides the whimsical video below, Kumar’s lab is using swarms for real-time disaster recovery and precision farming. The concept is very simple, in fact, it is inspired by nature (e.g., birds and ants). His “follow-the-leader networks” are able to make real-time adjustments to work simultaneously to achieve goals to help farmers prepare for the upcoming harvest and first responders deal with the scope of a collapsed building.
Similarly, Robin Murphy of Texas A&M and the Center of Robot-Assisted Search & Rescue spoke later in the day about robot teamwork in aiding first-responders. Similar to Kumar, she deploys robots in the field from the recent earthquake in Nepal to the massive terror attacks of the World Trade Centers (and all disasters in between). Murphy gave the audience very practical advice in understanding the financial and professional motivations of disaster/recovery administrations. One of her most successful examples was using water drones to open up the ports in Japan after the Tsunami in four hours, instead of the six months with human divers.
Learning from nature for our mechanical innovations is not novel, in fact Da Vinci’s sketches often reflect similar ideals. Most people think of Big Dog, however, the Festo Corporation has been using “bio-mimicry” to find real solutions to human problems for years, from grippers inspired by a chameleon’s tongue to propulsion systems that mimic a kangaroo. Hearing Nuzha Yakoob of Festo describe the team work of ants, echoed the earlier thoughts of Kumar and Murphy. I left the room feeling hopeful to where our robotic industry is headed. In the words of the closing speaker, Daniel Theobald of Vecna, it’s time to stop building and start selling. We will always innovate but getting the products out to the market to make a real difference will be the only way for us to cross the chasm to mainstream adoption (and acceptance).
To register for Richard Erb’s next RoboUniverse conference in Seoul this June, go to MecklerMedia’s RoboUniverse’s website.