February 17, 2010      

Vecna Technologies Inc., with its roots as a software and solutions company, has recently begun targeting the robotics industry. The privately held company’s newly formed robotics division comprises a 13-person team working on robotic technology and subsystems. Founded in 1999 by MIT alumni, Vecna, with offices near Washington, D.C., and in Cambridge, Mass., is well-located to support its four solutions groups: business, healthcare, government, and robotics.

Vecna’s first robotics project was the Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot, or BEAR. The BEAR was initially funded by the U.S. Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC), part of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command (USAMRMC). With defense funding to jump-start the BEAR project, the company was able to branch out into other robot application areas.

Defense funding is not the primary source of Vecna’s revenue. The company operates on a contract basis with a number of semicommercialized software and IT products. Vecna’s healthcare and business/government divisions provide software development and IT services to private sector companies and government organizations. Many of the company’s software projects address healthcare, including customer portals, billing systems, and infectious disease tracking.

Vecna’s overall goal is to stay self-sufficient and self-funded without need for venture capital investment or losing ownership of the company. Daniel Theobald, president and CTO, and Deborah Theobald, chairperson and CEO, the husband-and-wife team who founded the company, have instilled this philosophy in Vecna’s 100-plus employees. They are committed to keeping the company privately held and funded for interesting research.

Another unique facet of Vecna’s philosophy is its commitment to community service. Employees are encouraged to spend up to 10 percent of their paid time on community service projects. As a company, Vecna has worked with high school students in the FIRST Robotics program; sponsored 5K races to support healthcare access for low-income families; and developed a clinical utility kit for underserved and developing communities.

The Robots
Vecna has developed three complete robot systems and is attempting to commercialize discrete subsystems. While Vecna’s robotic arm is listed for sale, none of its other products are available on the website store, though the company acts as a reseller for robotic arms and manipulators from Barrett Technology Inc., also based in Cambridge, Mass.

Among the subsystems Vecna produces is the HG2 end effector, a six-degree-of-freedom hydraulic hand that incorporates force sensitivity into the three fingers. Vecna’s software system, called NRV (pronounced “Nerve”), is a robot control system to enable autonomy at a supervisory control level. The NRV system is designed to interface to JAUS, the military’s unmanned systems interoperability standard.

Vecna has also developed dynamic modeling and simulation software-a critical tool in robotics technology-and a biohazard sensor that can detect biological or chemical agents in the environment. This is a sensor that could become a payload on a Vecna or other robot.

Broad Range of Technologies
The Vecna robots represent a broad range of technologies. All three are mobile ground vehicles, but with vastly different mobility mechanisms, levels of autonomy, and target applications.

Vecna’s PORTER robot is a low-profile unmanned ground vehicle whose primary application is payload transportation. Working in concert with soldiers-it can be teleoperated or put into a semi-autonomous “follow” mode-the PORTER can carry up to 600 pounds. With the addition of optional sensor packages, camera modules, or upgraded autonomy and navigation, the PORTER could compete with the iRobot PackBot or QinetiQ Talon. However, those two platforms are mature and commercialized, whereas the PORTER is a relative newcomer to the surveillance and counter-IED market. The payload transportation application is more compelling, if only because the PORTER would have few competitors at the specified payload level.

The target application environment for Vecna’s QC Bot, hospitals, is very different from that of the PORTER. The QC Bot resembles a motorized equipment cart with a control panel and LCD. Designed to autonomously transport hospital equipment and enable remote-controlled telepresence, the QC Bot competes in the hospital courier market with robots like Aethon’s Tug and CCS Robotics’ SpeciMinder. The QC Bot also competes in the medical telepresence market with InTouch Health’s RP-7 robot. Vecna’s advantage in this sector is its knowledge of hospital recordkeeping, patient interaction, and hospital IT systems gained through the company’s healthcare division.

The aforementioned BEAR is a hydraulic bipedal robot designed to safely lift humans. The BEAR is the most widely recognized of Vecna’s robots (it even appeared on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report”). Although it is still in early development, a prototype was successfully demonstrated at Fort Benning earlier this year.

The name “BEAR” reflects its primary application: going into dangerous battlefield situations or hazardous areas to lift and remove injured or incapacitated people. This capability is extensible to the medical industry as well, particularly as a tool for moving patients in and out of hospital beds (a practice where healthcare workers are commonly injured). In the healthcare market, the BEAR faces challenges from the RIBA, a Japanese robot designed to look like a teddy bear and specifically designed to lift patients from hospital beds and wheelchairs.

The BEAR is also the most advanced of Vecna’s robots. Of the three, it is the best showcase of Vecna’s greatest strength-software. Using impressive dynamic balancing techniques, the BEAR can stand on its tank treaded legs and resist attempts to knock it off balance. Though the autonomy and IT system integration capabilities of the PORTER and QC Bot also reflect Vecna’s software strengths, the BEAR demonstrates the greatest breadth of software capabilities as applied to robotics.

Future Challenges
To successfully commercialize its robots, Vecna faces many challenges. The company is entering markets that require rigorous testing and high reliability-and contain entrenched competitors. Also, companies accustomed to delivering software products and services can find the complexities of developing and selling hardware, including managing a supply chain and a production line, a serious business challenge. Given Vecna’s commitment to remaining privately held, it seems unlikely that it would attempt to build up its own manufacturing capabilities. It is more probable that Vecna would sell a successful design to another company for production.

The Bottom Line
Vecna, a software and solutions company that has recently made inroads into the robotics industry, has chosen to tackle a wide range of challenges in military and healthcare applications. Although a relative newcomer to these markets, Vecna has a solid track record in government and healthcare that may give it certain advantages over competitive systems. However, at this time none of Vecna’s robotics technology has been fully commercialized, and the company still relies on government research and development dollars to drive much of its robotics engineering efforts. These facts, along with Vecna’s business philosophy and strong competitors in the defense robotics space, raise uncertainty as to the likelihood of seeing Vecna’s PORTER and BEAR robots operating on the battlefield any time soon. Vecna’s QC Bot hospital courier, or a medical version of the BEAR system, given the proper amount of sales and marketing support, has a better chance of being commercially fielded in the near term.