Cogmation Robotics has carved out a strong, sustainable niche during the past two years as one of the few suppliers of 3D robotics simulation software. Now the company is solidifying its stake in the simulation test market with a slew of new offerings and an appeal to student developers.
Cogmation, a five year-old, privately held firm based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was founded on the premise of bringing real-world applications to technical and nontechnical customers alike-from engineering companies to gaming aficionados. All of the members of the company have strong ties to the robotics industry and to the nearby University of Manitoba Department of Computer Science, which company executives believe gives them an aggressive edge and a forward-thinking perspective on technology.
Avoiding the Giants
The Cogmation Robotics philosophy steals a page out of Michael Masterson’s book, Ready, Fire, Aim: Zero to $100 Million in No Time Flat. According to Masterson, company success is optimized if it ships products as quickly as possible. Cogmation’s initial product offering was the Cogmation robotics development suite. However, Cogmation swiftly shifted gears in 2008 after it got an enthusiastic response to its first simulation package, an integrated robotics simulation and runtime system offering. According to Cogmation CEO Jack Peterson, once the simulation tool was announced, the company had inquiries from every university in the world.
That Cogmation was agile and flexible enough to respond to emerging market demand and realize the need for a robotics simulation package, is to its credit. The overwhelming majority of start-ups fail within the first five years-oftentimes because management persists in pursuing an unsuccessful strategy or a product. In Cogmation’s case, Peterson and his management team, which includes Marketing Director John Alcock and Vice President of Sales Tim Shea, realized that by filling the gap in the robotics testing and simulation market, they could avoid direct competition with industry giants like National Instruments (NI) and Microsoft Corp., both of which make robotics development suites. Instead, robotics manufacturers and developers use Cogmation’s 3D simulation products to test their own products, often in conjunction with other development tools.
Cogmation’s first major project was a robot simulator for the iRobot PackBot. According to Peterson, the first customer for the simulator had five C++ programmers and only one iRobot PackBot. Peterson and others at Cogmation recognized the pivotal importance of simulation for robotics development.
Following this epiphany, Cogmation in 2008 began a concerted effort to contact the leading robotics manufacturers, including Aldebaran, a Parisian-based maker of humanoid robots, National Instruments, and Microsoft. More than two dozen robotics manufacturers now use Cogmation’s 3D simulation and test packages.
As one of the few companies dedicated to 3D robotics simulation test and development software, Cogmation is well positioned to take advantage and support the burgeoning demand for robotics software and equipment. According to a 2009 report by the Japan Robot Association (JRA), worldwide revenue for the robotics market is projected to more than double from $11 billion in 2005 to $24.9 billion by the end of calendar 2010. But the largest growth spurt will occur over the next 15 years. The JRA forecasts that robotics revenues will increase by 166% from the estimated $24.9 billion in 2010 to $66.4 billion by 2025. The largest revenue segments in the robotics market will be home (excluding low-level electronic toys), followed by manufacturing and medical welfare.
A more recent June 2010 market research report, Global Service Robotics Market (2009-2014), published by MarketsandMarkets (www.marketsandmarkets.com), a Dallas consulting firm, forecasts that the total global service robotics market will reach $21 billion by 2014. The MarketsandMarkets report forecasts that the worldwide robotics market will realize a robust compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 49.6% from 2009 to 2014.
Big Fish, Small, Pivotal Pond
Though the robotics simulation test arena is not as visible or flashy as the robotics device market, it has the advantage of being far less crowded. Thus, Cogmation is a big fish in a small but pivotal pond in the overall robotics development ecosystem. Cogmation’s decision to deliver design, test, and prototyping 3D robotic simulation software as an enabling technology to support robotics software and device manufacturers was the correct one. By supporting rather than directly competing with industry giants like Microsoft and National Instruments, Cogmation creates more market and demand for its products.
To take advantage of the robotics industry growth, Cogmation has also wisely fielded a diversified product portfolio. It has a full suite of simulation packages and it is expanding its simulation offerings. On August 1, 2010, the company introduced its robotBuilder product, and several more products are due out in the next several months.
Cogmation’s 3D simulation packages are easy to use and closely resemble today’s realistic high-resolution video games. Users, from professional developers, students, and hobbyists, can all take advantage of the intuitive graphical interface. Besides being comfortable with the GUI, Cogmation’s 3D simulation software serves a serious purpose: It enables users to visualize robot behavior, automate the test and debugging process, and accelerate time to deployment and market by as much as 95% depending on the specific project.
The company also has its own YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/user/Cogmation) that provides users with straightforward commentary and video instructions on how to use the simulation packages.
Cogmation has never lost sight of its original goal to deliver a high level of advanced test and development capabilities while keeping the simulation program itself simple, fun, and extremely visual. This is evident in its latest product, robotBuilder, introduced in conjunction with National Instruments’ LabView. robotBuilder lets users design their own robot in 3D editor. Users can virtually drag and drop robotic components such as motors, propulsion devices, and even active components (e.g., laser scanner, wheels, and tracks). Best of all: When users drag and drop the components, they also drag and drop all the code needed to be compatible with Cogmation’s robotSim Pro simulator. There is no programming involved. This saves time and dramatically reduces programming errors.
In addition to robotBuilder, Cogmation’s product portfolio includes:
- robotSim Pro: Realistic physics-based simulation package with state-of-the-art 3D visualization that can be tailored for use by developers in a wide range of vertical markets, from personal and home use to engineering and scientific. robotSim Pro enables developers to construct simulated virtual robots and simulated components. Cogmation can also customize robotSim Pro to suit specific customer applications. It retails for $499.
- National Instruments LabVIEW Robotic Starter Kit Simulation Demo upgrade to robotSim Pro: This package extends LabVIEW robotics software with a more fully featured 3D simulator. robotSim Pro’s fully customizable robotics simulation works out of the box with the new LabVIEW robotics software for more productive and reliable designs, better robotic control systems, and high-fidelity environments. Cogmation partnered with NI to deliver a robotSim Pro demo that simulates the Starter Kit robot and LabVIEW collision avoidance behavior in a test environment. The NI LabVIEW Robotic Starter Kit Simulation Demo is a working simulation that shipped with LabVIEW 2009, Robot Starter Kit. The robotSim Pro Upgrade includes a virtual robot simulating NI’s LabVIEW Robot Starter Kit and three configurable environments: an empty room, an apartment, and an office. The robotSim Pro Upgrade also incorporates enhanced socket connectivity for improved robotic control using any network-enabled programming language including C++, API, or LabVIEW. Further, it lets developers save current projects, load and open past projects, and run multiple robots simultaneously within a single demo.
In addition, Cogmation has several new products in the offing that target a variety of robotics markets including military, scientific, and personal/home use. All of the forthcoming Cogmation products will retail for $99. Cogmation has not released specific ship dates. The Cogmation robot simulation products include:
- iRobot Create Virtual Robot: This virtual robot simulates the iRobot Create, a programmable robot which lets developers experiment to change and adapt robot functions by adding sensors, actuators, and other hardware via simulation.
- iRobot PackBot Virtual Robot: The PackBot virtual robot is Cogmation’s military robot simulation platform. It lets users simulate reconnaissance missions and explosive ordnance disposal. Used together, the PackBot virtual robot and robotSim Pro deliver semiautonomous and fully autonomous simulation capabilities to create and test complex and realistic robotic mission behaviors.
- Systronix TrackBot: Like the robot, the virtual bot features eight on-board sensor modules that let developers test and create such robotic capabilities as obstacle avoidance, spatial awareness, communication, navigation, and beaconing all at once. Additionally, developers have the ability to add optional and homemade sensors at any point in the design process.
- Whitebox 914 PC-BOT Virtual Robot: The 914 PC-BOT is a general service robot aimed at the personal use market for home, work, school, and recreation. Using Whitebox 914 PC-BOT virtual robot and robotSim Pro, developers can create and test commercial applications such as security and surveillance.
- Mars Rover Virtual Robot: This virtual robot that lets developers, teachers, and students simulate and test rover behaviors on the Martian terrain. Used in conjunction with robotSim Pro, the Cogmation Mars Rover lets users create space exploration applications and video games.
According to the company’s Shea, the primary pitch to prospective customers is that Cogmation’s 3D robotics simulation packages help users keep pace with the rapid rate of change in the fast-evolving robotics market. The company emphasizes that Cogmation allows users to develop, test, and simulate robotics actions and behaviors much faster and more efficiently than traditional methods, and also obviates the need to load equipment.
The latter is a boon for users, including students or developers who travel or work from home. The Cogmation robotSim Pro and robotBuilder can be used anywhere. This is extremely convenient for a student who is writing programs for a robotics class and who might only be able to use the robot once every two weeks. By contrast, students or professional developers can load the Cogmation 3D robot simulation packages onto their Microsoft Windows, Apple Macintosh, or Linux-based machines and work on them any time. The interface allows users to pick which robots they want to use; they pull in a project name and it has the program they’re simulating in the product.
In addition to its diversified product portfolio, Cogmation has differentiated itself from competing simulation software by providing users with the capability to pause the simulator while it’s running; drag and drop new objects; move the robot around and then restart the simulation with a robot in a different position; or even change the backdrop environment while the robot is moving.
Cogmation maintains that rival offerings require users to stop the simulation program to make changes and reprogram. Cogmation 3D simulation packages, however, require no reprogramming. Users can even virtually swap out an internal robotic camera and put in a different type of camera, sensor, or motor and then retest it.
In the spirit of keeping the process “fun and easy,” Cogmation is working with various high schools in Canada and the United States to encourage students to use robotics simulation on games and to compete in various robotics competitions. The company also invites anyone with a creative development idea to contact them.
Cogmation currently has about 20 investors, including its employees, and is now seeking “angel funding” to grow the business. The company has all the elements to make it successful: a leading-edge suite of products addressing a burgeoning market segment, and a diversified product portfolio that supports a variety of leading-edge robotics manufacturers. The one missing ingredient is visibility. Cogmation must construct a cogent, compelling, and cohesive marketing strategy to raise its visibility and that of its family of virtual 3D robotics simulation testing and development software.
|The Bottom Line
o Automate and quickly test robotic behaviors and applications and adjust them as necessary based on 3D views of the action
o Create new environments for robots to explore o Simplify robotic behavior and debug applications
o Reduce development time by up to 95 percent depending on the specific project