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Each month we pose a question of general interest to the robotics community, and ask our panel of experts to answer.
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by   -   March 14, 2014

RBI Update
The short answer is: a lot of patience and perseverance!

More seriously, this is one of the most frustrating aspects of entrepreneurship. High-tech entrepreneurs are supposed to be innovators, but, even more, they are supposed to be visionaries. They have to see the value that a certain technology can bring into the market.

The naïve approach when one gets to a technological breakthrough is to think that a new product will succeed because it is better. In the head of the entrepreneur, the added value, the competitive advantages, and the future use of the product are already clear.


by   -   March 12, 2014

This is a really important question, and one that our community should focus on more. That said, the answer is not truly profound or particularly obscure. It takes three things: doing something people really want, doing something profitable, and a lot of hard work.


by   -   March 12, 2014

The rise of online crowdfunding platforms over the last decade has created a whole new pathway for some robot startups. In the process, crowdfunding campaigns have helped to catapult hardware and robots into the public eye, captivating our imaginations in the process. Quite simply, crowdfunding is a form of entertainment just as much as it is a form of fundraising. And learning how to tell your story to others is a critical part of turning your idea or project into a product.


by   -   March 12, 2014

There are two parts to this process: the invisible and visible.

Rodin once said that sculpture is an art dedicated to holes. What he meant is that great work is invisible: if you are building a technology, or a company, or a product, if it is truly good, then most of the work will not be seen. It’s the stuff that, like dark matter, holds everything else together. You have to dedicate yourself to that.


by   -   February 12, 2014

Forget all the talk of machines taking over, Google’s robot and artificial Intelligence acquisitions will not More timelead humans down the path of the dinosaur towards extinction.

Google is in the business of providing information. Its mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

Google’s acquisition of DeepMind significantly augments its ability to collect and organize data to enhance its services towards its stated mission. The Google executive team knows what the big data evangelists have been claiming for some time – the chance to gather data effectively is a game changer. It also gets patents on improved image search capabilities.


by   -   February 12, 2014

Judging by the levels of media coverage and frenzied speculation that has followed each acquisition, the short answer to what does it mean is: endless press exposure. I almost wrote ‘priceless exposure’ but then these are companies with very deep pockets; nevertheless the advertising value equivalent must be very high indeed. The coverage really illustrates the fact that these companies have achieved celebrity status.


by   -   February 12, 2014

Google, is the wild card for me.  With more acquisitions (DeepMind, Boston Dynamics, Redwood Robotics, Industrial Perception, Meka, Schaft, and others) than Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft combined, the GOOG looks to be rigging up a kit that would offer excellent image recognition + navigation + mobility.


by   -   February 12, 2014

We have reasons to feel both excited and uneasy about giant corporations’ investment in robotics.

It’s exciting for the robotics community that the giants (Google, Apple, and Amazon) are actively investing in robotics.


by   -   January 15, 2014

There are two kinds of cyborgs – those that have broken the skin, and those that have not. Iron Man comes to mind as a cyborg of the second category, in that he can remove his enhancement (save for that pacemaker, of course). Being able to fly would be great, but we have planes. A hardshell carapace would be fun if I was into doing things like running into walls and falling from buildings. Though I have little super-hero ambition I do think there’s something that Iron Man has that I’d like, and that’s J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony Stark’s A.I. assistant.

I’d like a personal gentleman’s gentleman, if you will, someone that is there to both advise and help. A Sancho Panza, a Samwise Gamgee, a Dr. Gonzo, or a Dean Moriarty. A Ron Weasley or a Huckleberry Finn. A real companion to help me through life.

Though I have not spent more than a few minutes with it Marvel did build an app that is intended to do just this. Someone had the right idea but this is a thin semblance of what we need. Unfortunately, what Marvel missed was what makes J.A.R.V.I.S. so intelligent – his street smarts. His worldly knowledge and personality.

J.A.R.V.I.S. is based on Reginald Jeeves, the fictional valet of Bertie Wooster, from the writing of P. G. Wodehouse (1881–1975). Jeeves offered Bertie advice, assisted him with daily operations, helped him keep track of things, run systems, and do it via natural language. Jeeves was someone that enhanced Bertie’s knowledge, understanding, amplified his perception and wisdom and even fixed him the occasional hangover cure. So I’d like a Jeeves – an advisor of the most intimate sort that’s there as a consultant, teacher, confidante, and companion. Especially for the morning of January 1st, when I suspect I’ll have a bit of a hangover. He would, after all, know exactly what I’d had to drink that night, and would have probably been the one that had called the cab for me to get home.

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by   -   January 15, 2014

As a researcher in robotics, I tend to cringe whenever someone asks how long it will take until people start to see terminator-like robots on the streets. It’s a fun question to think about, but it is often asked with all too much seriousness, as though the world with terminators is the inevitable future that lies ahead of us.

But when I was asked this month’s Robotics by Invitation question, I gladly put on my imagination hat without much hesitation or cringing. Part of it might have something to do with the fact that no one will come after me and ask “so, when do you think that kind of technology will be available in the future?” So I felt very much free to let my imagination do what it does best.

The first thing that crossed my mind was a vision or an idea Mr. John S. Canning of the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division had discussed many years ago (in 2009 I believe) at a talk he titled “A Concept of Operations for Armed Autonomous Systems”. After thirty-something powerpoint slides, he summarized the talk with “Let the machines target machines – not people”. I think it’s a cool notion to think about building robots that are not built as ultimate killing machines, but built as the ultimate weapon-neutralizing machines. Imagine that, instead of targeted killing of humans, you send robots for targeted neutralization of weapons?

After coming across that summary, I remember thinking how useful it would be if I had an expandable, hidden robotic device implanted on my forearm, such that when I (if ever) need to go neutralize someone’s weapon, or protect myself from someone attacking me (for whatever reason), the device will automatically activate, expand into a bullet-proof shield, and help me detect dangerous weapons in the area to neutralize. If it comes with a mini jet-pack that allows me to fly, that’s even better. I’d be the ultimate superwoman whose day-job is to do research in robotics, but with a side job to fly to random places and help out with conflict situations. Ok, that sounds like a plot from a comic book.

inspector_gadget2Some of you might think I sound like I’m dreaming to be a female version of Iron Man. But I am thinking of something more subtle (at least while the device isn’t activated), like the Inspector Gadget (for those of you who don’t know him, Inspector Gadget was a cartoon character that could hide all of his cyborg gadgetry inside his trench coat). I would look just like a normal person, except that, when necessary, my ‘implanted devices’ would activate to serve whatever various purposes I need.

That’s only if you are asking me about implants. But if you are asking me about robotic accessories, then that’s a whole different story. Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a foldable and light pocket-sized device that you could carry with you while travelling (or grocery shopping), so that when you don’t want to carry heavy things, you could just activate it, and it would become a full sized stair-climber and a follow-bot? It would have come in very handy if I had such a device during my trip to Europe, hopping between trains and planes with my luggage. I don’t think I’d use anything bigger or heavier than my purse for this purpose, because that defeats the purpose.

Anyone have one of these available for testing yet?

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by   -   January 15, 2014

The potential of robotic implants is limitless, but I am not interested in super-human powers. Instead, I’d be happy with human powers, and in particular the ability to remember. Growing up, I would read a used book and then sell it back to the store with the mistaken notion that I had copied the book into “the vault” of my mind. That was true while I was hot out of the gate, but after awhile, well, I don’t remember forgetting half of what I read and learned.

And that’s why I would consider adopting a type of neural implant called a “memory prosthetic.” Future versions of these implants could improve short-term memory retention and also help with the transfer of short-term memory to long-term. Implanted, my experiences could be finally be locked away safely in my brain, instead of being allowed to dribble slowly out of my ears over the decades. In thirty years I don’t want to have hard drives teeming with photos of forgotten trips, or scrap books stuffed with my kids’ childhoods, or your name hovering on the tip of my tongue. All I want, you see, is what’s mine.

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by   -   December 11, 2013

‘David and Goliath’ was the most exciting story in robotics this year. 2013 has seen huge companies showing an interest in robotics, starting with Apple launching Anki live on stage at their global developer forum in June; followed by strategics like Flextronics and Samsung opening seed funds and accelerators; law firms and banks announcing robotics departments; and just about everybody including Amazon announcing drone delivery.

Probably the biggest Goliath of them all is Google’s Andy Rubin acquiring 7 top robotics companies for a secret new complex in Palo Alto, with some more acquisitions still to be revealed. Boston Dynamics coming to Silicon Valley is one of the popular suggestions but neither Boston Dynamics nor Google have responded publicly.

Goliath stories are great for stimulating interest in robotics and investment in robotics companies but if Google is buying them all, where can investors find innovative new robot startups?

Fortunately, there were some David stories in 2013 too. Unbounded Robotics is the best example I know of a small fast moving team doing big things from a short runway. Unbounded are a team of ex Willow Garage engineers who have turned their experience building both PR2 and Turtlebots into the UBR, a new mobile manipulating platform capable of more than a PR2 but at a fraction of the price. Willow Garage transitioned from one big research park into many small startups. Here’s hoping that for every Goliath, there are many more Davids.

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by   -   December 11, 2013

As Editor and Publisher of the Robot Report, I follow robotics news closely, especially in business and finance. Here are my top picks for 2013:


by   -   December 11, 2013

2013 was a year filled with talk of drones.

I’m not saying this just because I’m biased by the recent news reporting on how large companies (AmazonDHL, and UPS to be exact) are exploring the use of drones as a new delivery mechanism. If this is news to you, don’t worry. The robotics community came across this only a couple of weeks ago.


by   -   November 13, 2013

I found the plenary speeches at IROS to be especially interesting. Marc Raibert gave an entertaining talk on the robots being developed at Boston Dynamics. It’s encouraging to see that robots are becoming more and more robust, even for very challenging domains. Marc emphasized his company philosophy of pushing robots until they break, and then learning from those breakdowns to improve robot performance and reliability. Learning from failure is often overlooked in robotics, but is critically important for achieving usable systems. It’s also a good life lesson!

Masayuki Yamato gave an inspiring talk on transplantable cell sheets, and how they can help speed the recovery from many different diseases and surgeries. He showed, complete with surgery videos (not for the faint of heart!), how his cell sheet therapy technology can address many medical problems in the eye, heart, esophagus, etc.  While robotics isn’t a main part of the research, it is clear that robotics is an important tool for enabling these clinical applications that can change people’s lives.

In the third plenary, Tim Lüth challenged the audience to not automate for the sake of automation, but to show how automation can improve the outcome in people’s lives. He showed a variety of successful devices that his team has developed for medical applications, and made a compelling argument that new technologies can be more readily accepted if they are quickly designed and close in nature to the non-automated medical approaches. He argued that simpler robots that are custom designed and manufactured for a specific patient and/or procedure might revolutionize medicine in the future.

One last highlight to mention from IROS is the iREX robot exhibition. The sheer number of industrial and automation robots on display was so impressive. The robots were fast, precise, and made excellent use of advanced vision technologies. And that massive FANUC arm with a 1300+ kg payload capacity was a sight to behold! It puts a whole new twist on the issue of robot safety!

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