July 14, 2016      

RE2 Robotics and Endeavor Robotics have integrated their mobile arms using the new Interoperability Profile (IOP) standard, which the U.S. Department of Defense has encouraged as a way to streamline procurement and deployment of new technologies.

Bedford, Mass.-based Endeavor Robotics was spun out of iRobot Corp. after activist investors pressured the consumer robotics maker to divest of its Defense & Security business unit. It has supplied more than 6,000 unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) to militaries and police departments worldwide.

“We’re a startup with a 20-year lineage,” said Sean Bielat, CEO of Endeavor. “We have the excitement of a startup but revenue and stability.”

Endeavor had $55 million in revenue last year and sold its robots to about 42 countries.

Pittsburgh-based RE2 Inc. was spun out of Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center and makes advanced manipulators that can operate in air or underwater. It had worked with iRobot’s team for years, but the IOP makes it easier for the companies to combine their UGVs and robotic arms.

“We put the arm on [Endeavor’s UGVs] for additional capability and use the IOP standard for the manipulator,” Bielat told Robotics Business Review. “Easier integration onto the platform is what our customers want.”

Last month, RE2 won a $3.3 million subcontract with Applied Research Associates to test mobile manipulators for removing explosives and repairing battle-damaged airfields.

DOD calls for open architecture

“Both companies are responding to the Defense Department’s desire for open architecture,” said Jorgen Pedersen, president and CEO of RE2, which turns 15 years old this month.

“RE2 has been developing an open architecture for mobile robotic arms for years,” he said. “They work with Endeavor’s robotic chassis.”

Endeavor's FirstLook weighs about 5 lb.

Endeavor’s FirstLook can provide remote situational awareness.

“We supply a small, lightweight manipulator for Endeavor’s FirstLook robot,” Pedersen told Robotics Business Review. “About 100 have shipped to the U.S. military, supplying capabilities for reconnaissance and EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] missions.”

Thanks to IOP, the federal government isn’t locked into a particular vendor for supplying robotics components that work with one another. “Open design is a paradigm shift within DOD,” Pedersen said.

“Historically, defense programs would have a single integrator — there was no incentive to integrate different providers’ components,” he said.

“Now, it doesn’t matter who’s working on a particular capability,” Pedersen said. “With IOP, two companies can come together and bring together technologies with a standard interface. This minimizes the integration time to rapidly get technology in the hands of users.”

“The robotic systems integrator doesn’t have to also be the best sensor, vision, or accessory provider,” noted Bielat. “We can be the best at integrating all existing technology onto our platform and providing customers complete solutions.”

“We took existing products — two companies, two products, one solution,” Pedersen said. “We were able to quickly integrate, to show useful it would be. Thanks to IOP, we didn’t have to develop new products.”

The new interoperability specification “allows small businesses to play in larger programs,” he added. “With open architecture, the customer can get the best provider for each component.”

“For RE2 to be the best at smaller robotic arms, we focus on just that aspect,” Pedersen said. “We feel comfortable competing from that perspective.”

Building to the standard

The IOP is based on the Joint Architecture for Unmanned Systems (JAUS), Pedersen explained. “RE2 helped with development of that standard and defined the logical layer of that,” he said.

“From that standpoint, all of our mobile arms were compliant with JAUS,” Pedersen said. “IOP is based on it, but it also defined the physical and electrical layer.”

Complying with IOP “was very straightforward for us,” he said. “We just needed the right electrical, bolt pattern.”

Other companies were also involved in the development of IOP, Bielat said.

“Such standards — breaking systems into pieces — help industry be more competitive,” Pedersen said. “Now, if you’re bidding out a manipulator, you know others are offering the same. We’ll offer the best prices, and duking it out saves taxpayer money.”

“The defense market is really recognizing the importance of robots,” Pedersen said. “The Program Objective Memorandum for the military predicts spending to grow from $300 million to $1 billion from 2017 to 2020 — the amount for robotics is tripling.”

Endeavor sells its UGVs in 42 countries, and in the U.S., the Pentagon is its biggest customer, acknowledged Bielat. The company also this week partnered with Persistent Systems LLC to integrate the MPU5 communications system into its AGVs.

“There’s increasing interest in nuclear and industrial uses, but in the short term, the DOD is putting more money into developing the technology than the private sector,” he said. “We’re competing in three DOD programs in the next several months.”

“The next set of integrations is about taking the standard’s promise to the next level,” Bielat said. “We want to be able to quickly integrate other capabilities and devices that may be of use to customers. These challenges are what make robotics fun and interesting.”

Robots and lethal force

Endeavor Robotics’ work for the military and law enforcement authorities is about reducing the risk to people, not offensive missions, according to Endeavor Robotics CEO Sean Bielat.

“It give us a real sense of mission — keeping people out of harm’s way,” he said. It turned out that the robot used to stop the shooter in last week’s Dallas shootings was a Northrop Grumman Remotec Andros.

The use of a mobile arm to carry an explosive to kill suspect Micah Johnson has stirred up fears of setting a precedent. Questions about jurisdiction, oversight, and sufficient force will no doubt lead to regulation, but most analysts agreed that in this case, it was better to send a remote-controlled AGV to stop the murderer than to put more police and civilians at risk.

Some observers have expressed concern that hostile states and criminal and terrorist copycats could use the technology, but such robots aren’t widely available.

Nonlethal measures are also possible. Many local, state, and federal agencies are likely to investigate buying robots for more than surveillance.

Strong-arming the competition

When asked whether the mobile robotic arm designed for the military could have commercial applications, both executives said, “Absolutely.”

“As we’re able to take our technology to commercial and industrial applications, it’s an exciting time,” said Endeavor’s Bielat. “Manufacturability is a key challenge — our robots are designed to be manufactured [on a large scale].”

Endeavor and RE2 have worked together on federal contracts for years.

RE2’s advanced manipulators could see both military and civilian uses.

“From the industrial robotic arm and collaboration, the next revolution is going to be mobile manipulators,” RE2’s Pedersen said.

“The market can gain a lot from the defense side,” he said. “Our robotic arms are designed from the group up to be mobile in terms of size, weight, and power.”

“Our robotic arms have a 3-to-1 strength-to-weight ratio, meaning they can pick up three times what they weigh,” Pedersen said. “The ratio for industry is typically the inverse.”

“Even collaborative arms have a 0.3-to-1 ratio,” he said. “They’re not really designed for going on a mobile platform on a regular basis, running off a DC battery, and dealing with shock and vibration and environmental conditions.”

“There are lots of design challenges and tradeoffs in terms of the stability of the platform,” observed Bielat. “The end user wants the most dexterous, strongest arm at the lowest cost. You want to be able to lift a 155 mm round that weighs 90 lb. — the closer, the better.”

Naturally, military-grade mobile arms are designed to be more rugged than their civilian counterparts, a feature that could prove useful.

“Our arms are designed for a bleach washdown. It’s not helpful if someone spills a diet Coke on one,” Pedersen said. “These arms are all electromechanical — no hydraulics or pneumatics — including tool changers.”

“There are distinct differences. The industrial market will benefit from DOD investment in truly mobile arms,” Pedersen said. For instance, ground robots delivering packages could take them from a truck and place them at customers’ doors.

“We’re excited about applying our technology to new markets,” Pedersen said. “One of our goals is to diversify.”

A mobile arm could help reduce caregiver injuries.

RE2’s robotic arm can help move users from wheelchairs.

Healthcare, agricultural applications

“We recently licensed our technology for an assistive robotic arm developed at the University of Pittsburgh by Rory Cooper,” he said. “The arm can mount to a wheelchair or a bed to help serve as brawn for a caregiver. It could significantly reduce caregiver injuries, and we’re looking to commercialize it.”

RE2 is also working on a $1 million contract to develop an exoskeleton simulator for the U.S. Army.

Other markets that can use these [mobile arms] include the specialty crop market,” Pedersen said. “Agriculture is further out but coming. Some companies are investing in harvesting and pruning, other great applications of mobile manipulators because of their strength, dexterity, and lightweight nature.”

“We want to continue evolving the technology; what we integrated was just the beginning,” said RE2’s Pedersen. “We want to enhance the technology, push the envelope by making arms lighter without compromising strength.”

“It’s too far out to speculate about civilian technology,” cautioned Bielat, who said that Endeavor is looking for “organic growth through acquisition, partnerships, or licensing.”

“We’re focused on mobile manipulators and open architecture,” Pedersen said. “By making them easier to integrate, we want to apply these types of robotic arms to defense and new markets.”

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