May 11, 2015      

Robotics startups in the U.S. Northeast may lack for space and prototyping facilities, but not for long, thanks to the MassRobotics cluster.

Daniel Theobald, co-founder and chief technology officer at Vecna Technologies Inc., gave Robotics Business Review a tour of a potential site for the MassRobotics co-working space, as well as Vecna’s extensive laboratories, which could be shared with participants.

One of the proposed MassRobotics sites, in Cambridge, Mass., includes leasable cubicles, prototyping labs, and testing space. It also has recreational amenities such as pool and foosball tables, an exercise room, and a spot for musicians to jam. The building was formerly used by drug maker Pfizer Inc.

MassRobotics Gets Organized

The MassRobotics technology cluster recently filed for incorporation and formalized its board of directors. The board includes the following local luminaries:

The ground floor is being designed to bring a much-needed retail presence to the neighborhood. “We want this to serve not just this building, but also the entire neighborhood as a tech incubator,” Theobald explained. “This cluster could be like the biotech one in Kendall Square [also in Cambridge near Boston].”

In addition, MassRobotics can help serve as a liaison to industry, enabling researchers and startups to understand what problems robots can help solve, he said.

“By providing standards and integration, we want to remove friction from the industry,” said Theobald.

“Several large corporations have also expressed interest in opening offices in the MassRobotics space,” he said.

Robots on the move

In Vecna’s own facilities, which span four buildings and 200,000 square feet, Theobald pointed out working and research versions of the company’s QC Bot.

The mobile robot can autonomously aid nurses by delivering medication and return to a power dock. It can also serve as a “virtual conveyor belt” for materials handling in automated warehouse scenarios, he said.

The QC Bot is safe to operate around humans, and fiducial markers can give “added insurance” to navigation, especially when dealing with elevators and identical-looking floors, Theobald explained.

“The Tugger can carry more weight and deal with ‘incompatibilities,’ or objects that can’t fit on a conveyor belt,” he said. “It’s also autonomous and can tow up to 4,500 kilos of carts. Our complete lineup of logistics robots have payload capacities ranging from 5 to 4,500 kilos.”

Staffers at a network operations center serve every site using Vecna’s robots worldwide. “Our robots can ‘phone home’ if there’s a problem,” Theobald said.

Next to Vecna’s prototype BEAR, or Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot, were automated forklifts. One was driverless, and the other had a seat for optional driver control.

“Our robots are CE-certified, but passing CE testing is hard,” Theobald said, referring to European safety standards. “We developed complete CE testing capabilities in-house so that when we go to the certification lab, we can pass the first time. Members of MassRobotics will be able to take advantage of those resources and reduce costs in getting their products to market.”

Vecna's current product lineup

Some of Vecna’s current robot models.

Other devices produced by Vecna include self-service kiosks and a Vitals Chair for self-service vitals capture, plus the VGo telepresence robot. Theobald noted that all of the product names are likely to change soon.

Vecna is also involved in “promising” actuation research that has the “potential to revolutionize robotics and prosthetics,” he added.

‘Vecna Can Build Anything’

Vecna’s prototyping lab has a full machine shop with numerous milling machines and lathes; multi-axis machining centers; and equipment for welding, bending, and cutting. It also includes an EMI testing cage, thermal cyclers, vibration tables, and dynomometers.

In addition, Vecna’s lab has a dip tank and vibratory tumbler for polishing objects, water jets and laser cutters, and 3-D printers. One, a Fortus 900mc machine from Stratasys Ltd., can print objects up to a cubic meter in size.

“We can build anything quickly, and we can even print our own circuit boards,” said Theobald. “We can rapidly prototype anything here, but [these labs] are idle two-thirds of the time, so why not offer to share them with startups?”

Vecna also has “humanist design studios” for the study of human-machine interaction. “All our robots run the same software, which we’ve spent the past 10 years perfecting,” he said. “Robots are 99 percent software.”

Vecna's Tugger

Vecna’s autonomous Tugger can tow carts.

“Our smaller model uses the same navigation system as the QC Bot and is safe and reliable,” Theobald said. “Since we can rapidly prototype, we can spend more time on iterative testing.”

Vecna is developing cantilever arms and a proprietary end effector. Thanks to a lightweight design, six degrees of freedom, and advanced hydraulics, the arm can lift a significant weight. Thus, a mobile robot could eventually build a pallet by itself.

“We usually talk about ‘power density,’ or power to volume, but here, it’s ‘specific power,’ or power to weight,” Theobald said. “Electromechanical actuated robot arms can?t manage what our next-generation hydraulics can lift — up to hundreds of pounds.”

One of Vecna’s products, the PowerBox 6000, is a fully self-contained hydraulic power unit that runs efficiently off of batteries and can generate 6kW of hydraulic power. “Making the superior specific power of hydraulics practical for mobile robotic systems has been a big part of our work over the past decade,” said Theobald.

Speaking of power, Vecna is working on a standardized hot-swappable battery system designed specifically for the needs of the robotics industry. “The problem is that the robotics industry has had to mostly borrow components from other industries and needs to develop its own interoperable hardware standards like other mature industries,” he said.

Machine vision and machine learning can also be challenging. “We’ve developed software that can figure out how to pick up an object after the user merely points at it,” Theobald said. “[A robotic ground vehicle] could figure out how to park itself instead of following prior instructions.”

“Vecna is on a constant upgrade path,” he said. “We’re constantly reinvesting in R&D, and we view our customers more as partners. We’ve even applied for research grants together.”

‘Lower the hype level’

Not every business relationship is so simple, however, as the robotics industry matures.

“The community needs to be aware that automation is hard,” Theobald said. “Not every new company is able to do what it claims, and big potential customers at times don?t understand robotics and may waste time and money going down the wrong path. Keeping expectations reasonable and then exceeding them is the key to success.”

One company was working with Vecna but then decided to hire a few engineers to develop its own capability, Theobald recalled. The unnamed company’s project then failed, as it had underestimated the complexity and software requirements.

“We need to lower the hype level,” Theobald asserted. Overinvestment and the risk of failing to deliver to unrealistic expectations could hurt the entire robotics industry, especially in the area of safety and compliance.

In the future, companies will buy robots from multiple vendors, he said. “It is important that the industry work together now to create the interoperability that our customers are going to expect,” Theobald said. “Lack of interoperability will cripple the industry.”

According to Theobald, robotics makers “should focus on real problems and providing real value. Building a product before having customers that you know will buy it is the classic investment mistake.”

Don’t leave robotics to chance

Technology should benefit the entire human race, not just make a few people wealthy, said Theobald. Vecna Cares provided VGo telepresence robots and CliniPAK networked tablets to help fight Ebola in Liberia.

“I’m an optimist, but we shouldn’t leave human-robot interactions to chance,” said Theobald, who is also working on intensive hydroponics for indoor agriculture. “Robotics is a means to an end; robots can help with things such as elder care, but completely replacing caring humans is a bad idea.”

Editor’s note: This article was revised for accuracy.