Filling a need… or feeding a diversion

02 January 2013

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Today’s robotics industry could use some strategic guidance,
particularly in the area of healthcare.


It is clear to me that the next big markets for robotics are:

  • SMEs (robot workers and co-workers in Small and Medium-sized Enterprises)
  • Medical and healthcare (nursing assistance, surgeon augmentation, operating room assistance, therapeutic assistance, home care, remote presence, hospital automation)
  • Agriculture (robotically automated planting, weeding, harvesting, sorting and packaging)
  • Embedded systems within our cars, trucks and taxis

But there are hold-ups:

  • SMEs – cost, safety, training, vision, grasping and manipulation
  • Health care – safety, acceptance, cost, task training, jobs resistance, communication
  • Agriculture – low-cost immigrant labor, slow acceptance, lack of government support
  • Lack of political commitment and public-private consortiums to solve strategic problems
Until a significant breakthrough in these new markets, the biggest market for robots will continue to be the industrial sector – factories and massive processing facilities. That group is poised to see double-digit growth for many years to come as global competition continues to force companies to automate, improve quality, lower spoilage and reduce costs.

Furthermore, large-scale research and pure science robotics projects sponsored by the likes of NASA, DARPA, the EU and the governments of Japan and Korea, and capital-intensive industries, are diminishing in scope and dollars and being replaced by garage businesses full of toys, hobbyist inventions and incremental and transitional products. This change is happening because of enhanced interest in (and understanding of) “smart” consumer products, lower-cost sensor availability, more capable and cheaper CPUs, 3D printers, more flexible and open control software, government preoccupation with other more important priorities, and increased global competitive pressures to reduce cost and increase quality and productivity.

It is these very same low-cost sensors, processors and cameras enabling the auto companies to accelerate their embedded systems into fully functional self-driving cars (see example below). 

[NOTE: Companies mentioned without a stock symbol are privately held.]
Transitional Products

Kindle is the poster child of a transitional product. Although a much appreciated holiday gift for the last couple of years, Kindles have already peaked and are being replaced by more multi-functional devices (iPads, smartphones and tablets). 2012 shipments were only 14.9 million units – a 36% drop from 2011. One research firm predicted that 2013 sales will see another 36% drop. Meanwhile tablets and smartphones grew 27.1% in 2012 and are gearing up for a banner 2013.

People appear willing to pay more to get the extra features of an iPad or tablet. Thus e-readers were a device for a particular moment in time that has been replaced by a newer technology. This process is analogous to secretaries being replaced by word processing machines and then by PCs, WordStar and Microsoft Word.

Jeff Bezos used the Kindle to cultivate a different way for readers to buy more books from Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN). It became a “need” when people saw that the Kindle was light, easy to use, could fit in a purse, could carry a whole library of e-books, worked in bright sunlight as well as at night and didn’t cost too much.

Bottom line: The Kindle isn’t that different from most other tech devices — transitional products with something cheaper and more capable just around the bend.

In robotics, the same kind of transitional development is occurring almost daily. Really great inventions, silly ones, temporary solutions, and diversions are all happening simultaneously, seemingly without moderation, guidance or direction. And most are transitional (or at least incremental) with better solutions in the labs or courtrooms waiting for breakthroughs.

Temporary, Incremental and Transitional Solutions

CyPhyWorks new EASE drone.

A great example of a temporary solution is CyPhy Works‘ new pair of drones (EASE and PARC): timely, innovative and providing solutions for specific needs with a transitional solution: a tether.

CyPhy Works began with funding to research methods to view and analyze bridges and other potential security targets but soon concluded that conventional drones couldn’t handle the payload of cameras and instruments, sensor processing, security, and flight duration needed to get the job done.

“The biggest problem with [surveillance] robots today is they send them inside a building, they go down the stairs, no communications; they go around the corner, no comms. You go into a bunker and it’s got some rebar and you don’t get comms,” CEO Helen Greiner says.

“The problems are power and communications. It all comes down to that.”

“When you have a flying vehicle of a size, a diameter that can fit through a door comfortably, it will last for, you know, 20 minutes. And then the customers will want to carry something else, and that something else requires power, and it weighs the robot down and it ends up lasting 15 minutes, and somebody else puts something on and it ends up lasting 10 minutes, and none of it’s acceptable. You would have to be small and fly for at least a few hours to make it useful. With the filament, basically you get high-definition video images all the time, and then it has the added advantages in that it can’t be jammed, it can’t be spoofed, it can’t be intercepted. And it has unlimited power.”

Hence the tether, a clever adaption to today’s limitations enabling the drones to fly for as long as necessary, stream high-def images and sensor data to the base station for processing (instead of onboard), and with security assured (from the device at least) to the base station. [As an aside, the tether is enhanced by having the spooler autonomously controlled by the drone instead of the base station thereby reducing the chances for entanglement. Should it happen to snag or break, the vehicle can use its battery power to fly back to its point of origin.]

An example of an incremental product is the slow but steady movement toward autonomous cars. First there was adaptive cruise control (2001) which automatically adjusts your speed depending on the car in front. Next came active braking (2004), which could detect if a crash was imminent and apply the brakes if necessary. This was followed by lane assist (2008) and self parking systems. The 2014 Mercedes-Benz S Class by Daimler AG (ETR:DAI), will be the first car capable of fully driving itself (under certain minor limitations) by adding new rear-end sensors, pedestrian awareness and driver alertness cameras. The system will rely on 26 separate sensors, including radar and stereo cameras, to monitor traffic and pedestrians up to 650 feet in front. “Steering Assist” will steer in stop-and-start situations and at speeds up to 124 mph; it will slow entering curves but stay in its lane until the driver takes over. [This is just the beginning folks!]

Other incremental and transitionally useful consumer products include CaddyTrek‘s follow-the-golfer carts, Zodiac Marine & Pool‘s Polaris pool cleaners, Husqvarna‘s lawn mower (STO:HUSQ-B) and iRobot‘s (NASDAQ:IRBT) family of floor care products – all examples of early-adopter products for the tech savvy offering some level of utility for their stated tasks. 3D printers also fall into this category with a range of products from $300 on up to $1 million. The stocks of these companies have been highlighted by many of the analysts in recent months as great buys: Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) (which just acquired competitor Objet), 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) and Arcam AB (STO:ARCM). All three stocks have doubled in the last year. Alas, MakerBot, the do-it-yourself (DIY) phenom, is still privately held.

Really Great Inventions

The da Vinci surgical system by Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG), Kiva’s warehouse robots and goods-to-man concept (Kiva was acquired by Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) earlier this year), and Liquid Robotic‘s wave gliders are present-day robotics stars. Each is unique and disruptive to the way things were done and each is just a precursor to how things will be in the near future.

Less well known inventions are the inroads the larger industrial robot makers have been making with lightweight single and dual-armed robots capable of working alongside their human counterparts – without a protective barrier between them. Yaskawa Electric (TYO:6506), ABB (NYSE:ABB), KUKA (ETR:KU2), ST Robotics and Universal Robots all have new products making waves in the industry. Rethink Robotics‘ Baxter is the newest player in this trend toward robotic co-workers.

Toys, Kits and Academic Training Bots

WowWee’s Femsapien, Parrot’s AR.Drone quadcopter and Aldebaran’s Nao.

Toys like Parrot‘s (EPA:PARRO) AR.Drone quadcopter (a present-day global hit) and WowWee‘s line of robotic toys and pets (Robosapien, Roboraptor, etc.) have sold millions of units. Aldebaran‘s Nao robots have a large following in high schools and colleges partly because of their enticing humanoid form, their involvement in robotic soccer games, and their high functionality for low cost.

But there are also toys and other robotic items that whither because the developer didn’t want to be diverted into a business when all he/she wanted was to build something fresh and fun. Many of the tele-presence devices getting crowd-funding in recent months are fun-tech gimmick products with no long-term business plan or even interest in having one.

Don’t get me wrong. Robotic toys are likely to be the precursor to more useful robotic inventions – perhaps from the same inventors. But there is definitely an explosion of this kind of robotic toy – SWIVL, Autom, Sphero, Romo and Botiful being examples.

Within academia, industrial robot companies have donated and made available low-cost robots and teacher’s guides for high schools, junior colleges, tech schools and universities for years to help stimulate STEM careers and robotics in particular. Staubli’s Robot House at SCI-Arc, a leading architectural school in Southern California, is an example. But in recent years, more humanoid and open source robots are becoming affordable. Also helping speed up development are open source software resources such as Willow Garage’s ROS.

Healthcare Robotics

In a few recent articles in robotics and healthcare media, including one by the editor of Robotics Review, there has been a call for leadership – for national direction in strategic areas of the robotics industry, particularly in the area of healthcare. Henrik Christensen and the team involved with the publication and presentation of “A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics: from Internet to Robotics” began the process and it has slowly gained momentum.

Early last year President Obama established the National Manufacturing Competitiveness Initiative which included a section for robotics. The initiative was funded with $500 million, 10% earmarked for robotics. The scope of his directive was to insure that critical (defense and security) products were manufactured by Americans in America. Tom Clancy’s new book “Threat Vector” shows just how critical this can be in his fictional account of a virus planted on a foreign-made hard drive component installed in an American-made disk integrated into a high-security American defense installation.

Other countries – the EU, Korea and Japan in particular – have public-private consortiums working on difficult problems for which solutions are in the national interest, hence the reason why they are funded. Other than the American Manufacturing Initiative, American doesn’t have any such strategically-funded national interest projects (except military and defense).

To my way of thinking, advancements in healthcare shouldn’t be held up or otherwise thwarted because of patents, research funding or other corporate or personal (selfish) rationalizations. Patient care should be paramount, profits and profitability secondary. But that’s not the way it is at present nor will it change without political intervention.

I’d like to suggest a change similar to what Henry Ford did when confronted with a similar situation 100 years ago.

In the early years of automobile development, a group owned the rights to a two-cycle gasoline engine patent. By controlling this patent, they were able to monopolize the industry and force car manufacturers to adhere to their demands or risk a lawsuit. In 1911, Henry Ford won a challenge to the patent. The result was that the patent became virtually worthless and a new association – which would eventually become the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association – was formed. The new association instituted a cross-licensing agreement among all U.S. auto manufacturers: although each company would develop technology and file patents, those patents were shared openly and without the exchange of money between all the manufacturers. By the time the U.S. entered WWII, 92 Ford patents and 515 patents from other companies were being shared between these manufacturers, without any exchange of money – or lawsuits. The best braking system was shared by all as was the best window wiper, and many, many other inventions passed freely from one car company to the others. The result was that the user – the car driver – benefitted with the safest and best cars, no matter the brand – and the auto industry flourished as a result.

If an association like the MVMA – with a charismatic and visible leader – were to be launched in the medical robotics arena, perhaps the wonderful new inventions we’ve all read about would become available quicker and with less constraints, patents, and other hold-ups. Patients – you and I – care-givers and healthcare systems would all share in the benefits and lives saved which would come from focused development speed-ups in the robotics-related healthcare marketplace.

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Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series.
Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series.

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