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December 17, 2010      

The mission statement for BlueBotics SA, a 2001 spin-off from the Autonomous Systems Lab (ASL) at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, reads, “to market innovative and promising mobile robotics technologies.” The company has made good on this pledge, particularly in two areas of primary focus: transportation logistics and service robots.

The company is headed by Nicola Tomatis, Ph.D., who joined the Switzerland-based company in 2001, and became CEO in 2003. For the past six years, BlueBotics has produced annual growth of more than 20 percent. Customers include NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), CERN, Maxon Motors, Kokeisl, and Esatroll.

Autonomous navigation technology is showpiece

Navigation, of course, is central to both transportation logistics and service robots. The crown jewel in BlueBotics’ solutions portfolio, its Autonomous Navigation Technology software (ANT), supports navigation in ground mobile robotics systems. A laser-based system, ANT directly measures the environment around a mobile robot, eliminating the need to change the environment to suit the robot or program pathways.

Using ANT, moving objects such as other mobile robots or humans, are located, tracked, and avoided if necessary. ANT-enabled systems can navigate and remain oriented in an environment without the use of static location aids.

BlueBotics claims that installing ANT is faster and easier, and therefore less expensive, than competing navigation systems. The company also claims that ANT handles more exceptions, such as obstacles blocking the path, than competing solutions. ANT can also directly use the measurement data coming from the safety sensors equipping 95 percent of the autonomous guided vehicle (AGV) market.

The ANT software controls embedded high-precision sensors and communicates wirelessly with operators. The wireless network connection allows optional remote monitoring. BlueBotics claims accuracy of plus or minus 10 millimeters and plus or minus one degree.

Products in the AGV market, which is sizable and very competitive, must meet a variety of difficult challenges, and better vision is a key technology to master those challenges. Robots must navigate freely in the environment and exhibit movement flexibility.

BlueBotics thrives on partnerships with original equipment manufacturers. The company adds value to partner products with its vision solution. For example, beginning in 2009, ANT provided vision capabilities for the Italian company Esatroll and its Paquito industrial forklift.

By using the ANT software, Paquito devices can position pallets and transfer objects from storage spaces to trucks and rail cars. The vision-enabled Paquito forklift moves at a speed of 1.2 meters per second and reacts to obstacles quickly, making it safe to work around humans.

BlueBotics offers other products and solutions in addition to ANT. At the Hanover Messe in April 2010, BlueBotics demonstrated the following products that incorporate (and demonstrate) the ANT software, including:

  • Nesbot, a fully autonomous mobile coffee machine built to order for Nestle offices to deliver coffee to employees at their desks, or groups in a meeting.
  • Igor, a butler robot with a humanoid arm that can serve drinks.
  • RoboX, an interactive tour guide robot designed for navigation around obstacles, including people, within crowded areas such as exhibitions and trade fairs.
  • Gilberto, a mobile entertainment robot that comes from a collaboration of BlueBotics and Esatroll.
  • Shrimp III, a six-wheeled mobile platform built for ESA to conquer challenging terrain.
  • AMV-1, an autonomous mobile vehicle designed for hospitals and rehabilitation centers to transport goods and even patients.

Nesbot garners attention

Nesbot has earned a fair amount of press. There are more than 110,000 entries returned by Google when searching for Nesbot, and the video on BlueBotics’ YouTube channel has been viewed more than 1,100 times. The two-part robot consists of the ANT-enabled mobile base and a fully functional coffee machine. Coffee drinkers communicate with Nesbot either through a Web application on the company intranet or a PocketPC attached to Nesbot.

ANT software powers the mobile platform for Nesbot. Navigation routines are a combination of a map of Nesbot’s service area, planning and motion determined by the differential drive system, and localization. The ability ANT provides the mobile platform to recognize and avoid obstacles is critical to allow Nesbot to function in a crowded environment.

Markets for Nesbot, according to BlueBotics spokespeople, are in the high-tech fields such as design, architecture, fashion, and advertising companies. High-end luxury products and service companies are also targeted. Nesbot is positioned as a reward for employees and a way to impress company visitors.

So far, only one Nesbot has been developed (on commission by Nestle). RoboX, the interactive tour guide robot used for five months at the Swiss National Exhibition in 2002, included 11 identical units. Each was fully autonomous. They worked up to 12 hours per day for a total of 13,313 hours, and traveled 3,316 kilometers. They also provided commentary in four languages.

Developing, programming, and building so many complex, fully autonomous mobile and interactive robots is quite rare, and BlueBotics can claim significant expertise in this area.

Taking on the AGV market

BlueBotics is well established in the AGV market, but becoming the dominant player will be considerably more difficult. BlueBotics may possess the technology and skills to do so, however. The company’s consulting group includes experts in mobile robotics, computer science, micro engineering, and systems integration. With such expertise, BlueBotics can provide industrial customers with a turnkey robotics project from analysis and feasibility, through development, and on to production.

BlueBotics is deeply committed to collaboration with research and industry groups. The company co-founded the Swiss Mobile Robotics Consortium, a group of nine Swiss-based companies directly or indirectly involved with mobile robotics. BlueBotics remains strongly connected to the Autonomous Systems Lab that started at the EPFL, then moved to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in 2006.