EiED Online>> Robot Business

July 26, 2006
Robotics is a business of growing niches that are starting to mature and grow into a larger market. Embedded Technology Editor Bill Wong reveals the trends seen at the 2006 RoboBusiness conference, such as Microsoft's entry into the world of robotics.

This year's Robobusiness conference was on Pittsburgh's waterfront across from Three Rivers stadium. Accommodations were a bit cramped at Sheraton Station Square but more because of the major increase of attendees over the years. Vendors were tucked in every available corner. Traffic on the show floor and at the sessions was heavy.

There were a number of interesting announcements although much of what was presented was forward looking. For example, Microsoft made major presentations about their new Robotics Studio. This is currently a free download and it is only in the alpha/beta stage. It is called a “technical preview.” Of course this means things are subject to change but a number of vendors have jumped on the bandwagon including Kuka Industrial Robotics, CoroWare, Robosoft, RoboticsConnection, and Whitebox Robotics. These are companies that are already shipping robotics platforms. Lego Mindstorms and other platforms are supported as well.

The Robotics Studio is not just important because it is coming from Microsoft. It is a major chunk of software in its own right. It addresses development and simulation as well as acting as a deployment platform. It is hosted on Windows but the target robot does not have to run Windows. Still, the larger robotic platforms typically run Windows XP or Embedded Windows XP. The development environment is integrated with Visual Studio and support is provided for .NET languages like C# and VB as well as Microsoft's Iron Python (also in beta) and third party languages.

Microsoft demonstrated some impressive simulation support allowing developers to work on software without requiring hardware support. Physics support is provided by Ageia's PhysX engine (see “Virtually Real,” ED Online 12541). Now Ageia's hardware acceleration is available for robotics development as well gaming acceleration.

The service-oriented architecture is designed to be extensible. It is also applicable to platforms running no operating system or operating systems other than Windows. It remains to be seen if this approach will be viable in the long run but for now it is one of the more accepted methodologies for handling robots. The architecture can handle autonomous robots or logically tethered robots that have most of the intelligence hosted on a remote computer or PC. The latter is especially handy for smaller robots with limited on-board memory and computing power.

The technical preview is available as a free 25Mbyte download from Microsoft's website. This does not include Visual Studio and there are some .NET items that will need to be on your PC. There are a growing number of tutorials so it is possible to at least examine the environment with minimal experience with Microsoft's tools.

Microsoft was not the only one with forward looking announcements. Bruce Boyes of Systronix gave a presentation on upcoming standards support from the Object Management Group (OMG). OMG is the same outfit that brings you UML and CORBA. The robotics support will be a UML profile although there is still discussion as to whether UML already provides all the necessary support. It is possible that UML may become the preferred programming environment for robotics but, even if it does not, UML is already used extensively to define robotic requirements.

Mobile Robots Are Hard Robots are already quite successful in a number of arenas including assembly lines but these tend to be fixed devices such as robotic arms. In this case the environment is controlled and the overall situation is well known. Human safety can be assured through the use of sensors and physical separation. Things become a bit more difficult when the robots can move around and where the environment is very dynamic as in the real world.

Still, successful mobile robots are becoming more common and useful. This is especially true for military applications so it was not much of a surprise that one of the keynote speakers at Robobusiness was Major General Charles Cartwright. General Cartwright's presentation centered around Future Combat Systems (see Fig. 1). The latest overseas conflicts have shown how useful UAVs (unmanned air vehicles) can be but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Ground and sea vehicles are also being evaluated. The Army is even going to take a regular unit to work with the latest UGV (unmanned ground vehicles) and man portable units like Honeywell’s Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) (see Fig. 2). The MAV can fly and hover sending back video signals to its controller. The MAV can be managed using a set of waypoints that it can visit without user intervention.

Robotic standards are well along on the military side of things. The Joint Architecture for Unmanned Systems (JAUS) is a DoD-mandated standard for unmanned systems. A number of companies were highlighted in Cartwright's presentation including RE2 (Robotics Engineering Excellence) and Applied Perception. Both were at the show displaying their wares such as RE2's JAUS Software Development tools and libraries. Applied Perception has delivered a complete, integrated JAUS-based UGV navigation package.

Another presentation was given by the City of Osaka. They were highlighting their Robot Technology Osaka that includes a number of Japanese companies working on or delivering robotic products. This includes Wakamaru (see Robotics article in latest special issue if link is available) from Mitsubishi.

Osaka was not just showing off their new products although there were a number of companies at the show from Japan. It was also highlighting their exchange program where U.S. companies are invited to Osaka with the long term goal of generating partnerships. A number of U.S. companies have already been to Japan as part of this program.

Real Robot Products Robobusiness had its share of real products on display. One was Aethon's robot tug (see Fig. 3 and Fig. 4). It is an interesting modular approach to the problem of moving items around under robotic control. Each robot has its own internal navigation system that knows where the robot is at all times without the need for beacons or other image recognition systems. It is given a map of its area and it can move around paths specified using the map. A wireless link connects the tugs to a central management computer that tracks each robot.

The tugs are autonomous. Just tell them were to go and they pull whatever is attached to the desired location or all the desired path stopping at preprogrammed waypoints. The robots using infrared and ultrasonic sensors to avoid obstacles like people but these sensors are not used for path following. Aethon's target audience at this time is the medical community especially hospitals. The tug was designed to be compact so it can pull trailers through small doors found in many older hospitals.

Another solution for the medical community was Virtus's seal (see Fig. 5). Click here to see video">//archive.electronicdesign.com/video/electronicdesign_robotic_05.wmv">Click here to see video This cute little toy is designed to keep patients company. It can sense a person and pressure sensors let it knows when it is picked up or hugged. Its expressive eyes and gentle purr is heartwarming. Just what the doctor ordered. The current models run over $3000 but a smaller, more economical version is expected in the future.

IRobot's Roomba and Scooba where on display. These inexpensive cleaning robots are well known and quite popular. More later on how you can program one. IRobot's lesser known endeavors on the military and commercial side include the Packbot (see Fig. 6). A number of variations were on display at the show. They are being used domestically and overseas for surveillance and bomb detection and removal.

Automatika's Tigre (see Fig. 7) finds a home in gas pipelines. It can go places that a conventional pipeline “pig” cannot. It can inspect the interior of the pipeline and provide environmental and flow status. Eventually, all pipelines will require inspections and robots like Tigre will make this possible.

Robot Development Platforms There were a number of other robots that are available both as development platforms as well as standard solutions for things such as surveillance. MobileRobots was showing off its PatrolBot (see Fig. 8) and its larger 4-wheel drive Seekur. Click here to see video">//archive.electronicdesign.com/video/electronicdesign_robotic_08.wmv">Click here to see video

Segway (see Fig. 9) was at the show as well with its usual decapitated Human Transporters. These platforms are ideal for building robots that will have to navigate in rough or confined terrain. CMU and a number of other universities use these platforms for soccer playing robots.

One surprising aspect of this year's show was the addition of vendors such as Advanced Digital Logic who had its line of PC/104 boards on display. These platforms are often used in robots because of their flexibility. I expect to see more vendors of this type at robotic shows as the number of robotic products grow.

There were other vendors that were not specifically robotic vendors at the show as well providing tools and products for power, motors, and even software. Wind River was highlighting their Linux and VxWorks support and development tools. This type of platform will become more important as developers move towards more commercially reliable and supported platforms.

There were quite a few other robotic platforms on display like this little one (see Fig. 10) and these from Innova Robotics (see Fig. 11). Skeyes Unlimited was showing off its Real-Time 3D Arial Mapper (see Fig. 12) attached to an unmanned helicopter. These smaller vehicles can handle chores that once required larger, manned vehicles.

A number of vision systems were on display. Valde Systems' VS1701 Stereo Smart camera and VS1501 unit contains two 640x480 cameras on a 12 centimeter baseline. (see Fig. 13). The unit has a processor that can be augmented with a range of Xilinx FPGAs. Right now it is roll your own when it comes to software or FPGA firmware but Valde Systems' will have packaged software in the future. It all depends upon what you need.

Focus Robotics had its nDepth Processors in PCI and PC/104 form factors. It's camera pare has a 6cm baseline and delivers resolutions up to 752x480. It comes packaged with its own software. They were displaying difference distance mapping images in real time. Focus Robotics also uses an FPGA for its preprocessing.

Robotis has a fun solution to building robots (see Fig. 14) but its underlying motors were even more interesting. Click here to see video">//archive.electronicdesign.com/video/electronicdesign_robotic_14.wmv">Click here to see video They have a built-in AX-12 network interface so units can be easily daisy-chained thereby minimizing wiring and easing programming chores. Adding intelligence to the motors significantly simplifies the processing chores and interconnects especially as the number of servos in a system grows.

For those with a hankering to hack a Roomba, check out IRobot Developers (see Fig. 15 and Fig. 16). The laterst Roomba’s and Scooba’s have a little connector that can accept serial commands. RoboDynamics has created a set of Bluetooth-enabled units that can provide these little beasties with command and control from a distance via Bluetooth-enabled adapter attached to them. I haven’t come up with any uses other than vacuum cleaner races yet but there were some ideas bandied about at the show.

Future Robotics was showing off Fred 3 (see Fig. 17) that had some new innards. These included a very small PIC-based solution with a USB interface. It can accept multiple power sources and it has diode protection to make it relatively idiot proof since many of these will be destined for school desktops. There is also a new, low cost, optically isolated motor control board.

Other low cost solutions included HomeBot Robotics’ RoboTrax XL Modular Robotic Track System. A pair is available for less than $200. Finding tracks for smaller robots is tough unless you lobotomize a toy. These tracks are tough, reliable and easy to mount. The robot on display was built from off the shelf parts just before the show for under $500 including the tracks.

Systronix had its JStik Network Module on display. It runs about $350 and sports an Agile AJ-100 Java processor that executes Java byte codes in hardware. The card includes a 10BaseT interface and has 4Mbytes of flash and 2Mbytes of SRAM.

Evolution Robotics’ was showing off their Northstar and vSLAM (visual Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) support. Northstar is a neat little combination. It includes an infrared unit that projects two spots on the ceiling. A matching unit, just over an inch square, looks for the spots and provides real-time positioning information via a serial port. This makes for a simple navigation system that addresses a robot’s main question: where am I? The more sophisticate vSLAM technology is used in a range of products that do things such as identify merchandise on the bottom of a cart. Untold millions are lost because people forget to check under the cart when they go through the check out lanes at a store.

One of the neatest peripherals was Chatten Associates’ Mk7.2 Head-Aimed Vision System (see Fig. 18, Fig. 19,and Fig. 20). This head tracking system controls a camera that can turn on any axis to match the head movement of the user. It can be used for remote viewing as well as directional control that frees up the hands for other use. It requires minimal training and can be useful for non-robotic applications as well.

Robots Are Fun Of course, having a bunch of robots running around is fun all by itself but there were a few on display that were even more interesting. One was Qausi (see Fig. 21 and Fig. 22) brought to us courtesy of CMU’s (Carnegie Mellon University) Entertainment Technology Center. This is part of the Interbots Platform. Just don’t look behind the curtain.

The curtain actually hid two things. The bulk of Qausi is actually under the table on which it stands. The servos that move its arms are connected via cables. Likewise, its voice is a translation of what a remote operator provides although it can generate its own words if necessary.

The other fun episode was the induction of new members to the Robot Hall of Fame (see Fig. 23). The master of ceremonies was actor Anthony Daniels who played the robot C-3PO in all six "Star Wars" films. The keynote was given by Daniel Wilson, the author of "How to Survive a Robot Uprising."

The new inductees included Sony's AIBO; Gort, the metallic giant sent to Earth to establish peace in the 1951 sci-fi movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still"; Maria, the art deco star of the classic 1927 silent film "Metropolis"; and the android David from Steven Spielberg's "Artificial Intelligence: AI". The industrial robot arm Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm (SCARA) also gained a place in the hall.

Overall, the show was exciting, interesting and upbeat. It is still a mixture of research and real world products but this is likely to continue for quite awhile. We are far from practical humanoid robots for general use but there are plenty of places where mobile robots are practical right now. I am looking forward to seeing how next year’s show will be.

Related Links Advanced Digital Logic


Applied Perception


Chatten Associates

CMU Entertainment Technology Center


Evolution Robotics

Focus Robotics

HomeBot Robotics



Kuka Roboter GmbH





Mobile Robots

Object Management Group

RoboDynamics Corp.




Robot Technology Osaka


RoboBusiness 2006


Robotic Trends


Skeyes Unlimited


Valde Systems

Whitebox Robotics

Wind River

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