September 26, 2015      

This past week’s RoboBusiness 2015 was a key event for robotics researchers, investors, manufacturers, and users to meet. Most sessions were well-attended, and our exhibitor hall was buzzing with the latest developments and deals among more than 1,200 attendees. Although the conference has been held for over 10 years, this year’s show in San Jose, Calif., was my first.

Here are five initial lessons to share from this year’s RoboBusiness:

Social robots are coming …

From Aldebaran’s Nao and Pepper to AvatarMind’s MyPal, humanoid robots bring a mix of childlike facial features and increasingly sophisticated speech- and expression-recognition systems to market. They’re evolving past toys into useful machines for the workplace, schools, hospitals, and retail stores.

After years of humans using various interfaces for information technology, it’s time that robots gain the ability to communicate with us through “human forms of expression,” said Robert High, chief technology officer of IBM Watson, in his keynote. “I believe we’re about to see an explosion of robots in what we see and use every day,” he said.

HUBO at RoboBusiness 2015

Prof. Jun-Ho Oh, Hubo, and RBR together.

I had the honor of interviewing Prof. Jun-Ho Oh of KAIST and Rainbow Robotics onstage about Hubo, winner of this year’s DARPA Robotics Challenge. Among other things, he explained how much work went into developing a robot that could successfully drive and get out of a vehicle, climb stairs, and move over rough terrain or debris.

SRI Robotics had a Proxi research model walking on a treadmill. It’s lighter and more energy-efficient than other robots, reminding us that biomimicry is just catching up to abilities we take for granted, like bipedal motion. We’re still a long way from androids that can fully move and interact with humans on our terms, but we’re getting closer.

And so is the Internet of Things

Factories and warehouses have already been tracking information from numerous points, but what happens when ubiquitous communications and sensors are able to move and interact with their environments? The Internet of Things and robotics promise to change everything from shop floors to homes.

Autonomous Marine Systems Inc., which won this year’s Pitchfire startup competition, is developing a fleet of fully autonomous sailboats. These “Datamarans” could help with monitoring offshore energy production, fisheries, and weather and climate.

The ability of robots to share observations and learn through artificial intelligence in the cloud could make them both collectively and individually smarter, noted High.

As ABI Research robotics practice director Dan Kara and others noted, IoT is only as good as the analytics used to derive value from all the data collected. As with other emerging technologies, matching the solutions to real-world problems is the challenge for moving from research to commercialization.

Australia-based CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) is working on just that translation with its OpenIoT cloud-based middleware infrastructure. It is studying applications including intelligent manufacturing (sometimes called “Industry 4.0”), urban crowdsensing, “smart living” for the elderly, and digital agriculture.

Still, there are some data-storage and privacy concerns. There’s also the danger of the “Internet of Useless Things,” particularly for household robots, warned OLogic Inc. CEO Tod Larson. “Do I need my grill to talk to my fridge?” he asked.

But industrial automation is still key

It’s easy to be wowed by the latest and greatest robotic developments, but don’t forget that the bulk of robots are already deployed in advanced manufacturing. That area is likely to continue growing, thanks to mobile robots, collaborative robots or cobots, and global shifts in production and supply chains.

I got to talk with representatives from industrial automation stalwarts ABB and Universal Robots, who said that smaller, more flexible robot arms can be useful for a widening range of applications and industries beyond automotive. Much of that new flexibility is thanks to software and custom integration, said Chris Saito, director of sales and marketing at L2F Inc. (Lab2Fab), an ABB partner.

Food production is another area where mobility, perception, and dexterity improvements are benefitting industry. According to Game Changer finalist Harvest CROO Robotics, there is strong demand from strawberry growers for robot pickers.

Logistics and service robots are on the move

Don’t let improving autonomy fool you — collaborative and self-guiding robots may look easy, but they’re harder to develop (if not deploy) than they look. I was pleased to see Advanced Motion Controls Inc., whose components are essential to many well-known robots.

LIDAR and other sensing technologies need to be paired with motion-control algorithms and hardware rather than traditional guidance by stripes or chips embedded in the floors or walls.

Sawyer at Rethink's RoboBusiness booth

Rethink demonstrated Sawyer at its booth.

Game Changer Award winner Fetch Robotics showed how Fetch and Freight can be useful in logistics, and Rethink Robotics’ booth demonstrated cobots Baxter and Sawyer for manipulation and packaging.

In addition, Clearpath’s new OTTO is a veritable self-navigating workhorse, with a capacity of 3,300 pounds.

Mobile robots are also already in use in service and hospitality. Adrian Conoso, co-founder of Savioke, showed me how Relay is providing room service to hotel guests. Another example is BeamPro, which is now integrated with Salesforce and had telepresence demos.

Speaking of service, there are plenty of ways for robots to help humans. Whether it’s for dispensing prescriptions, aiding in rehabilitation, 3D-printing organs, or assisting surgeons, the market for healthcare and medical robotics could grow to $3.7 billion in the next three years.

“Empathic” robots such as Pepper and mobile ones like Savioke’s Relay can be used in hospitals and nursing homes as well as in shops or schools. CTO Jude Kessler and CEO David Pietrocola from Washington, D.C.-based Pitchfire competitor Luvozo PBC said they were investigating other healthcare robots for senior living services.

Regions pursue robotic excellence, employment

It’s fascinating to sit down to a lunch session and listen to people working to develop and apply robotics technologies around the world. For instance, Javier de la Ossa and Eugenio Garnica from Sadako Technologies, a Madrid-based Pitchfire contestant, explained how they’re refining machine vision, picking, and AI for waste sorting and recycling.

CSIRO’s Industrial Internet Innovation (i3) Hub in Australia is only part of the activity in the Asia-Pacific region, and countries beyond Japan, China, and South Korea are becoming players in their own right. Singapore is working to become a regional center for robotics, said Melanie Tan from the Singapore Economic Development Board.

Both robotics reseller and service provider Blue Ocean Robotics and the TU Delft Robotics Institute brought delegations from Europe to RoboBusiness 2015. In addition to our annual U.S. event, RoboBusiness Europe 2016 will be in Odense, Denmark.

The Delft University of Technology (a.k.a. TU Delft) is partnering in a “helix” of academics, companies, and investors to build “RoboValley” in the Netherlands, said program manager Arthur de Crook. While RoboValley is inspired by Silicon Valley, its combination of robotics researchers and entrepreneurs is unique, said program director Arie van den Ende.

These are just a few quick observations — there was a lot more to see and learn at the convention! Thanks again to all the people who took time to talk with me. In the coming weeks, Robotics Business Review will be posting more in-depth articles and video interviews from RoboBusiness 2015. Be sure to check us out!

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