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Joseph Engelberger: Robotics Move From Industry To Space To Elder Care

Dec. 1, 2008
Engelberger (2008)

Retirement isn’t coming easy to 83-year-old Joseph Engelberger, widely known as the Father of Robotics. “There’s a lot that can still be done,” he says wistfully, despite already accomplishing so much in the robotic field. In fact, Engelberger and George Devol produced Unimate, the first industrial robot.

While studying for his MS degree at Columbia University, Engelberger worked for Manning Maxwell & Moore as a physicist designing control systems for nuclear power plants and jet engines. At a cocktail party, he met Devol.

“We had lunch together and he told me about the patent he’d just gotten for a programmable manipulator. I said, ‘Gee, that sounds like a robot,’ and soon convinced my company to take a license on it. That was a happy circumstance. Soon I was the leader of a new industry.”

When changes came to the company, Engelberger raised funds to buy its aerospace division and the robotic license. In 1956, he and Devol founded Unimation Inc., the world’s first robotics company. Engelberger used his knowledge from heading the aerospace division to build Unimate, the first robot, and installed it in a General Motors die casting operation in Ternstedt, N.J., in 1961. The automotive industry was forever changed.

“Robots were flexible,” said Engelberger. “They could be reprogrammed to work on the next model car. It made automation much more practical and saved money for the producers.” Later, Engelberger advised Congress how automation could be used in space exploration and consulted for NASA on all robotics-related projects.

Eventually, after observing the help his aging parents needed and some of the services he’d like himself, Engelberger saw a whole new field for robotics—in healthcare and elder care. “There are great possibilities in the service area for robotics simply by using the technology developed for the industrial arena,” he said.

“That is where the real excitement will be. I’m talking about a household robot to be a companion for the elderly or handicapped in the home, one that could do a task like fetch and carry, find things in the fridge, cook and clean, and speak to you in your language,” Engelberger said.

“A robot has a thick skin. My parents had people who lived with them to take care of them. But that’s not always easy. Sometimes there are personality conflicts. With my parents, finally, the fourth person hired fitted into their lifestyle. In contrast, an elder care robot would accept the senior’s lifestyle and do what it is told, over and over again,” he said.

Engelberger already has been successful in introducing less complex robots into the healthcare field. In 1984 he founded Transitions Research Corp., subsequently called HelpMate Robotics. Its goal was to give robots sensory capabilities to work with humans in service activities. It manufactured robots that travel along hospital hallways and in and out of elevators carrying pharmaceuticals and supplies to nurses, all without fixed tracks or guide wires.

In 1997, the company was sold to Cardinal Health subsidiary Pyxis Corp. That sale, however, was “not a good thing” for the robotics field, said Engelberger. He had marketed the 4-ft, 6-in., 600-lb robot to companies as something they could rent and subsequently “fire” if it didn’t work out.

“You can’t take a brand new product and demand people put up $20,000 and hope it works,” says Engelberger. But the new owners, said Engelberger, changed the marketing method and decided to sell depreciated robots. The result, he said, was decreased sales.

Engelberger also warns robotics developers against trying to make a robot walk. “That’s silly,” he said. “The amount of control you need for legs is much higher than what you need for wheels. Elders should live on one floor, so a robot can be on wheels. Let its arms be things that enter into the world.”

One of the major challenges facing today’s robotics entrepreneurs, says Engelberger, is the outlook of the investment community—even without the economic turmoil. “So many investors during the dot-com era were spoiled by being able to reap financial reward from a small investment in a software company for a short amount of time,” said Engelberger.

For those working in the robotics field, much larger financial capital is needed over a much longer time period. “But it is getting easier (to get the financial backing) because we have more and more people believing robotics can be done. We need to have these wealthy lay people believe in it because they have the money.”

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