Every time someone hears my blog’s name, I get a laugh. I am happy to oblige, as I know that the robotics industry is changing the world for the better – making our roads safer, our workers more efficient, and our doctors better. So this week, I feel compelled to put the naysayers in their place and profile a couple of amazing innovations that are making a huge social impact.
First off, I need to make a plug for one of my portfolio companies, Ekso Bionics, that is enabling paraplegics to walk again using exoskeletons. Just this week, Ekso received FDA approval to treat Spinal Cord Injuries and Stroke victims.
Ekso is a wearable robotic exoskeleton designed for rehabilitation institutions which enables its wearer to stand and walk over ground with full weight-bearing, reciprocal gait in a clinical setting. The device’s software allows it to provide adaptive amounts of power to either side of the wearer’s body.
“This clearance marks a major milestone toward our goal of establishing exoskeletons as standard of care in the rehabilitation clinic,” Thomas Looby, president and interim chief executive officer of Ekso Bionics, said in the release. “Our strategy has been to concentrate on the rehabilitation clinic, with a focus on ease of use, rapid turnover between sessions and efficacy for a range of patients.”
While Ekso was one of the first exoskeletons in the market, today the field is very robust with 10 companies including ReWalk, Cyberdyne, Panasonic, Samsung and others. In fact, last week, I saw a presentation by Professor Conor Walsh of Harvard about a soft wearable robotic exoskeleton suit to help seniors and able body people. Imagine, our clothes will soon be robotically enabled. I predict that eventually exoskeletons will be so commonplace that the naysayers will be wining about wheelchair factories closing due to robotics.
From exoskeletons to drones delivering medical supplies, the world is becoming more accessible to our most vulnerable humans. Silicon Valley start-up Zipline, plans to begin operating a medical delivery service in Rwanda this July. The fleet of robot planes will initially cover more than half of the tiny African nation, creating a highly automated network to shuttle blood and pharmaceuticals to remote locations in hours rather than weeks or months.
Rwanda, one of the world’s poorest nations, was ranked 170th by gross domestic product in 2014 by the International Monetary Fund. And so it is striking that the country will be the first, company executives said, to establish a commercial drone delivery network — putting it ahead of places like the United States, where there have been heavily ballyhooed futuristic drone delivery systems promising urban and suburban package delivery from tech giants such as Amazon and Google.
“The concept of drone ports is something that a very small decision-making unit in the country decided they were going to do,” said Michael Fairbanks, a member of the Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s presidential advisory council. “It took a very short time. It’s something that America could learn from.”
That Rwanda is set to become the first country with a drone delivery network illustrates the often uneven nature of the adoption of new technology. In the United States, drones have run into a wall of regulation and conflicting rules. But in Rwanda, the country’s master development plan has placed a priority on the use of the machines, first for medicine and then more broadly for economic development.
“Rwanda has a vision to become a technology hub for East Africa and ultimately the whole continent of Africa,” said William Hetzler, a founder of Zipline, “Projects like ours fit very well with that strategy.”
The new drone system initially will be capable of making 50 to 150 daily deliveries of blood and emergency medicine to Rwanda’s 21 transfusing facilities, mostly in hospitals and clinics in the western half of the nation.
The drone system is based on a fleet of 15 small aircraft, each with twin electric motors, a 3.5-pound payload and an almost eight-foot wingspan. The system’s speed makes it possible to maintain a “cold chain” — essentially a temperature-controlled supply chain needed to provide blood and vaccines — which is often not practical to establish in developing countries.
The Zipline drones will use GPS receivers to navigate and communicate via the Rwandan cellular network. They will be able to fly in rough weather conditions, enduring winds up to 30 miles per hour.
When they reach the hospitals, they will not land but will drop small packages from very low altitudes. The supplies will fall to earth suspended by simple paper parachutes. The planes will then return to a home base, where they will be prepared for a new mission by swapping in a new battery and snapping in a new flight plan stored in a SIM card. The pilotless planes will be used to deliver medical supplies in a pioneering commercial network.
“This is the new face of the aerospace industry,” said Jay Gundlach, president of FlightHouse Engineering, an Oregon-based aviation consulting firm. “Established unmanned aircraft companies should learn from Zipline’s agile and innovative culture.”
Like Zipline, others are trying to solve the problem of the autonomous distribution of medical supplies. Many other systems being developed, however, are based on less-efficient multicopter or quadcopter designs that have shorter range and less ability to fly in all-weather situations. In the United States, a firm named Flirtey has delivered medical supplies using multirotor helicopters as an experiment in Virginia. Another Silicon Valley start-up, Matternet, is experimenting with the government of Malawi and with Unicef to deliver infant H.I.V. tests by quadcopter. Google X, the advanced research arm of Alphabet, is now developing a vertical-takeoff-and-landing system that will hover and deliver packages by the use of winches.
Zipline began in 2014 when two of its founders, Keller Rinaudo and Mr. Hetzler, visited a young public health worker in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The worker had created a text-messaging system that enabled hospital workers to urgently request medical supplies in life-or-death situations.
But Mr. Rinaudo said he realized that what he was looking at was a long list of death sentences. Today in many places worldwide, attempts are made to deliver medical supplies by motorcycle or pickup truck over roads that are frequently impassable.
The public health worker “showed me the database that had entries every time someone texted, and it was thousands of names long,” Mr. Rinaudo said. “It was mostly infants, and there was no response. The supply chain had no way of taking them into account.”
Mr. Rinaudo and Mr. Hetzler set about to find an airborne alternative to automate a supply chain. They met Keenan Wyrobek, a Stanford-trained roboticist who was instrumental in the design of the PR1 robot, a pioneering general purpose mobile robot with arms, and later the more advanced PR2 robot developed by Willow Garage.
The three technologists assembled an engineering team with aerospace industry experience, attracting talent from Space X, Aurora Flight Sciences, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, as well as Stanford and Google. The start-up has raised $18 million from investors including Sequoia Capital, GV (formerly Google Ventures), SV Angel, Subtraction Capital, Stanford University and individuals including Jerry Yang, a founder of Yahoo, and Paul Allen, a founder of Microsoft.
Mr. Hetzler said that by placing engineers who have consumer electronics expertise in close collaboration with roboticists and aerospace engineers, it had been possible to rapidly build a highly automated system that would be operated by a staff of five to eight.
In February, Zipline signed a contract with the Rwandan government to begin operating the drone service this summer. A small team will be based in a city near the Rwandan capital of Kigali to oversee the service.
“I always think of Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist, who said, ‘They promised us flying cars and all we got was 140 characters,’” said Paul Willard, a former Boeing aerodynamics engineer who is now an investor in Zipline, referring to the social media service Twitter. “This feels a little bit more like flying cars.”
However, one does not have to look too far to see how robots are changing our planet for the better. The New York Harbor School is working to distribute 1 billion oysters around 100 acres of reefs in New York’s waterfront by 2030. The goal is “to make our harbor once again the most productive waterbody in the North Atlantic.” Oysters are remarkable organic Roombas that clean all of the waters of impurities and are badly needed in the Hudson. To do this, the Harbor School is looking to engage roboticists for their help in surveying the coastline.
Local robot inventor, DURO UAS, is currently developing an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) made just for shallow waters. The Harbor AUV is an “eco-drone” dedicated to environmental research, mapping, and other applications for coastal development and protection. It sounds like the Harbor School should give these guys a call…
However, their technology (which looks like a torpedo) is not limited to NYC, as the UN estimates that by 2050 nearly 70% of the earth’s population will reside in urban areas, leading to higher levels of Harbor pollution. In order to maintain safe and sustainable urban environments for the future, robots will be deployed in the thousands to monitor and map our human environments.
Then there is Elon Musk, who generated over $14 billion (and counting) from the future sale of its Model 3 Teslas. In my opinion, the Tesla is the first of many mainstream autonomous cars that can drive itself and reduce fossil fuel consumption. So being a Rabbi of Robots is not so bad, as humans snicker we are hard at work making their lives better. You are welcome.