September 03, 2015      

The robotics industry is growing quickly, but a lack of standards could hold it back, said Daniel Theobald, chief technology officer of Vecna Technologies Inc. Robotics Business Review continued our conversation with Theobald about robot standards and his company’s recent acquisition of VGo. We also discussed how intelligent application of automation can affect the workforce and the MassRobotics cluster for Massachusetts.

Theobald described his ongoing efforts to “reduce friction” between robotics providers and industry by developing standards. “We’re working with NIST and ASTM,” said Theobald, referring to the National Institute for Standards and Technology and the American Society for Testing and Materials.

For example, Savioke, which recently launched its Dash robots in the Crown Plaza San Jose-Silicon Valley, had to do custom integration with the hotel’s elevators,” Theobald said. “This is unnecessary friction. Elevators should just work with robots, and robot companies shouldn’t have to be elevator companies. We need to start the process of standard integration with elevator, automatic door, fire, and security systems.”

Vecna is working with its customers for robotics infrastructure. “We’re making progress on starting the standards effort,” Theobald said. “We need to collaborate with the entire industry and to educate people on why it’s too important to wait for regulation.”

Vecna CTO Daniel Theobald

Vecna’s Theobald wants standards beyond safety.

“So far, the existing standards focus on safety, which is important, but we’re pushing for more standards around integration, interoperability, and APIs,” said Theobald. “Making it so that robots and systems can interoperate seamlessly and so that anyone can build new apps for the robots, not just the manufacturer, are what is going to really get this industry moving.”

Finding good reasons to use robots

Theobald said he recently met with representatives from across the robotics industry in France. He talked with delegations from the EU, Japan, Russia, Singapore, and South Korea.

“We talked about the graying workforce, particularly in Japan,” Theobald said. “Instead of trying to design expensive humanoid robots to try to care for the elderly, wouldn’t it make more sense to design simple robots to do much of the less meaningful work that needs to be done, so that humans can take care of one another? Perhaps we could even focus more on building better communities and spend more time in the arts and sciences.”

“Assistive technology is good, but robots could free human talent from other jobs that are better suited to robots,” Theobald said. “The framework for robotics applications should be meaningless vs. meaningful work. Humans can find value by caring for one another.”

There are unanswered economic questions that arise from industrial automation, Theobald acknowledged. “How can reducing labor costs lead to more opportunity?” he asked. “The pace of change as we enter the Automation Age is going to eclipse what we have seen historically, so we need to be proactive about discussing how everyone in our societies can adapt and thrive. If we work together and have honest dialogues about these issues, I believe we can make sure that automation is a good thing for the human race and allows us to achieve more equity and prosperity for everyone in the world than ever before.”

Recent op-eds and studies support Theobald’s assertion that technology can be a positive force for employment rather than a zero-sum game. Working alongside robots could lead to better jobs for humans instead of mass unemployment, if the private and public sectors understand how automation is continuing to change and have a strategy.

Vecna gets a running start with VGo

About 1,000 units of the VGo telepresence robot have already been sold. In Vecna’s headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., there is a new demonstration area to showcase VGo’s capabilities for the educational and healthcare industries.

“In the case of homebound students, we wanted to provide independence without affecting teacher attention,” Theobald said. “The telepresence robot is easy to use, and because it’s controlled by the student, it gives the teacher the ability to conduct the classroom without the hassle of, say, setting up a teleconference.”

VGo costs only $7,000, while competing models cost as much as 10 times that amount, said Theobald. “The VGo is the low-cost option in the market, and this allows for strong ROI quickly when the more advanced features of the more expensive robots aren’t required,” he said. “VGo kept the weight and cost down by allowing the teleconferencer to drive the robot. We are in the process of adding Vecna’s autonomy stack to the platform, so soon the VGos will be upgraded to drive themselves with little additional cost.”

“We’re also looking at a third market — enterprise users,” said Theobald. Audi is already using VGo, originally called Ego, to provide remote support to its U.S. dealerships.

Audi uses Vecna and VGo's telepresence capabilities.

Audi is using VGo to assist its mechanics.

With an optional add-on so that its screen and camera are closer to the height of a standing person, VGo can enable a central engineer to help a field technician. VGo also has a USB port for a borescope and other devices that are used for medical diagnostics, Theobald explained.

Likewise, consultative services become a great possibility in healthcare. “We’ve been told that a healthcare organization can get ROI on VGo in just one remote visit by a doctor because physicians’ time is limited and expensive,” Theobald said.

One of the hurdles with robots for telemedicine is reimbursement. “The laws are starting to change to allow and cover teleconsults,” Theobald said.

“VGo, which was featured in a Super Bowl ad, comes with a Verizon 4G Wi-Fi module option. It can autonomously dock with its charging station via infrared sensor.

“For logistics, VGo fills our 1 to 5kg payload niche,” Theobald said. “We’re now offering it as a standard part of our own customer-support operations, for instance at the Lake Nona VA medical center in Florida”

Vecna views robots as a service as potentially following a staffing model. “It’s not just hardware,” Theobald said. “You’d show a new robot around and work alongside it, just as you would a new employee.”

VGo can move faster than its competitors, but like Vecna’s “driver-optional” material handling robots, the goal is safety first, said Theobald. From the QC Bot to collaborative robots and home robots, the idea is to be as safe as possible in the case of contact with humans. “This is one of the reasons the VGo is very light with a low center of gravity,” he said. “There is no way it will hurt anyone.”

About 90 percent of the employees of VGo, which was based in New Hampshire, have accepted offers to join Vecna, Theobald said, and some use their own product to avoid a longer commute.

The global medical robotics market could reach $17.0 billion by 2020, with an estimated compound annual growth rate of 12.7 percent in the next five years, according to Grand View Research Inc. Research and Markets is a bit more modest in its prediction, saying that the market is worth $3.2 billion and will grow to $6.4 billion by 2018, but the healthcare systems market is expected to grow in either case.