9 May 2016
Application Not Innovation Dominates Proceedings at NY Robo Show
With the sector showing signs of maturing, many exhibitors at the RoboUniverse Expo were more concerned about harnessing the commercial applications of existing technology rather than showcasing the very latest in blue sky research.
Industrial applications, self-guided wheelchairs and pilotless drones, as well as sensing power and precision, appear to be the chief pre-occupations of many in the robotics sector at present. Indeed, such concerns pretty much dominated proceedings at this year's RoboUniverse event in New York.
Computer processing capabilities, as well as the mechanical components of robots and drones, are becoming ever cheaper and more powerful, while overall weights are tumbling. The next big-step changes in performance, then, are improvements in the way that semi-autonomous devices detect and navigate the world around them – especially those areas shared with humans. Connectivity, of course, goes hand-in-hand with sensing, as smarter devices, networks and even whole cities share information via the Internet of Things (IoT).
As with all industries, robotics is under a constant pressure to deliver improved performance at a reduced cost. Unsurprisingly, one exhibitor – debuting a 'pick and place' industrial robot at this year's event – claimed to offer a machine at a far lower price than any of its rivals.
Preben Hjørnet, Founder and Chief Executive of BlueWorkforce, a Denmark-based robotics company, was bullish about his latest innovation, saying: "We managed to get the cost and complexity down by a factor of 10, compared with the benchmark costs of moving parts per minute. Total set up, including gripping and 3D perception, is US$15,000. This compares to a current industry average of around $150,000 to $200,000."
According to Hjørnet, this startling change in entry costs for pick-and-place machinery is the result of a changing approach to research and development. Explaining this new thinking, he said: "I had 1.6 million pick-and-place cycles in a database, then I clustered these motions. I did an optimisation algorithm – a kind of reverse calculation. We are originating out of the need and not the solution."
Reducing the entry price for automated pick-and-place procedures may now open up markets that previously would not have been able to afford the equipment and, instead, have to rely on low-cost labour. Highlighting the advantages of this changed threshold, Hjørnet said: "One of the things that is close to my heart is recycling. Recycling is a low-profit business, but it needs to become more widespread, as we are wasting too much material. We have already started picking out PET bottles, cans, and rare earth materials out of computers and electronics.
"While the motion element of the automated pick-and-place process may be getting cheaper, the equipment to sense and recognise different recycling materials is still expensive. There are hyper-spectral imaging cameras available, but they are very costly. This is a bottleneck – if you introduce a very expensive camera it undermines the business model."
Overall, sensor manufacturers were well represented at the event. This reflects their growing importance in the world of robotics, whether as part of production line control or for use in drones or other self-navigating robotic systems.
One such exhibitor was Austria's AMS. According to Rudolf Pilcher, the company's Product Manager, the demand for navigation sensing technology will inevitably continue to grow. He said: "Customers are searching for solutions that allow robots to navigate, particularly with regard to spatial sensing. We have been looking at our portfolio and considering how best to address this.
"The consumer and automotive sectors have the highest volumes in terms of requirements. Inevitably, then, these are the most interesting markets for us."
Similarly seeing a growing need for sensor technology was Quebec-based Leddar Tech, a specialist in the production of distance-finding lidar sensors, systems that use light pulses as a form of robot-friendly radar. Pier-Oliver Hamel, the company's Applications Engineer, also sees the automotive sector as a primary market, particularly with automatic collision avoidance technology now being at a premium. He said: "The automobile industry is definitely where we see the most revenue coming from over the next few years.
"Two years ago, we signed an agreement with Valeo [the global car accessories supplier]. It has licensed a custom chip we co-developed. This integrates our technology, including our photo detector, into a single package. This will now be offered by Valeo across the automotive industry."
According to Hamel, the use of sensors in safety-critical applications and for aerial drones has shifted the emphasis in the sector. He said: "Cheaper, lighter, smaller and less power hungry are now the priorities, along with greater reliability and more stringent safety levels. We're hearing more and more about collision avoidance.
"A few years ago, in the case of drones, it was impossible to find sensors that ensured full collision avoidance. Now, though, we are nearing the point where that technology is a reality."
As the use of sensors becomes ever more prevalent, systems integration is becoming more important for the successful implementation of IoT protocols. As monitoring systems tend to have grown organically over a number of years, getting these different devices to 'talk' to one another can be a real problem.
As a possible solution, Colorado's Twinoaks Computing provides 'middleware' that facilitates communication between different computer systems. Explaining the concept, Laura M Clark, the company's Marketing Co-ordinator, said: "We sit on top of the operating system, functioning as a tool your application uses for data distribution. We are now talking to a lot of companies that have sensors that didn't realise they needed to communicate with each other."
Another product attracting considerable attention at the event was a self-navigating wheelchair, the latest innovation from California's 5D Robotics. This embraces a number of different guidance systems, while also using node-based technology.
Highlighting its advantages, Phil Mann, the company's Chief Marketing Officer, said: "We take in all kinds of inputs, including GPS, which is accurate to three to six metres, and lidar, good for short ranges, but doesn't work in the rain. We also include our 5D sensor. This uses ultra-wideband radio as a sensor. This means we can offer positioning with two- to five-centimetre accuracy."
The system has seen the greatest take up among industrial customers looking to automate equipment movement around warehouses and stockyards. Detailing its uptake to date, Mann said: "The first customer that we can talk about publicly is United Rentals, a business that rents out industrial equipment.
"We added 5D and we integrated this with the positioning nodes in its yard, which covers about 12,000 square metres. It is, in effect, a microcosm of a smart city. Now its forklifts take a virtual rail path. They are going from where they were parked onto a path, then onto a truck, which can then drive off to the customer. When it returns, the forklift can drive itself off."
As well as simplifying navigation, sensing and control, a number of companies at the event were also focussed on simplifying robotic propulsion. Taking a lead here was Washington-based Transcend Robotics with its Arti tracked stair-climbing apparatus.
Michael Purk, the company's Operations and Business Development Manager, said: "A lot of our business comes from mining, tele-presence, and CNC manufacturing machines. If you're a company and you have developed the hardware and the software for a robotic arm, for example, you might not necessarily have a way to mobilise it. If you combine it with our system, though, you can bring your product to market in under 90 days."
This emphasis on use, rather than inventing a breakthrough technology was seen as key to success by many at the event. Highlighting this, John Meckler, Co-founder of Asimov Ventures, a New York-based venture capital business specialising in tech start-ups, said: "Right now, applications seem to be the real successes. Making use of existing technology, rather than creating new technology, is where it's at right now."
The RoboUniverse Conference and Expo 2016 was held at the Jacob K Javits Convention Center in New York from 11-12 April. The event attracted some 8,000 visitors from across North America and beyond.
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, New York