I am already sold on the RoboBusiness conference as I explained in the Manufacturing Forum sponsorship video. This year’s edition did not disappoint. I’m heading back to Robotiq HQs with a bag full of inspiration and ideas, fueled by the energy of the robotics community which is driving the whole industry at an accelerated pace. Here are the 9 things that struck me about this year’s conference.
1. Robots in logistics
Every RoboBusiness edition seems to have a prevalent theme. The industry vehicle of the year this time is without a doubt logistics. Is this a consequence of Amazon’s initiative to hold a picking challenge and to bring the attention of roboticists to the challenge? Here are a few companies looking at material handling in logistics using robots that were at RoboBusiness:
- Aethon – Aethon is a mature company selling intra-logistic robots in hospitals. They’ve recently started to transfer their products to other industrial applications. One of them was shown in Dr. Claudia Lehmann's Industry 4.0 Keynote where their Tug robot was used in a Continental factory.
- Clearpath – Clearpath has been selling mobile robots in the research market for several years. They have started some time ago to transition some of their technology to the industrial market. During RoboBusiness, they released OTTO, a heavyweight mobile robot shown at the exhibit. Together with the new product release, they announced funding from GE ventures.
- Fetch – Fetch, one of many companies founded by members of the Willow Garage mafia showed their Fetch and Freight robots on the exhibition floor. At this moment, it seems that there is more emphasis being put on Freight.
- Soft Robotics – Soft Robotics was showing their compliant grippers by targeting picking applications on the exhibition floor. They participated in the Robotics and the Future of the Automated Warehouse panel discussion.
- IAM Robotics – Pittsburgh-based, IAM Robotics, a startup looking at automated order fulfillment, also participated in the Robotics and the Future of the Automated Warehouse panel discussion..
By the way, you can expect this list to grow in the coming months as some more startups exit stealth mode.
2. Robots that learn
On the technology side, machine learning is an expression that was heard again and again during the various sessions. In his inspiring keynote, Rob High, CTO - Watson at IBM explained what they’re up to with Watson and how it can be used so machines like robots can interact with us in a way that naturally matches our human condition. Instead of following a prescribed sequence, learning robots have the potential to adapt to real world, unstructured environments and interactions with humans. Along the same lines, futurist Ray Kurzweil, now at Google, introduced how the human brain's neocortex hierarchical thinking works to achieve our 'robotic' functions and how computers can more frequently use this same kind of structure. Anthony Lewis, Sr. Director of Technology at Qualcomm Research, presented some interesting results for the application of machine learning that can be run on their embedded hardware. UC Berkeley Professor, Ken Goldberg, pointed out how connected robots might use and share knowledge in the cloud.
3. Connected robots
On top of Goldberg's talk on the State of the Art Cloud Robotics, there was also a presentation about Industry 4.0 by Dr. Claudia Lehman (HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management) and the Internet of Things by Elliot Duff (CSIRO) and Michael Garrod (NPC Robotics). With Industry 4.0, the idea is to connect all objects and machines in factories. This is a fairly old concept in Germany where it originated. The most interesting part of Dr. Lehmann's talk was the numerous examples of how this concept was implemented, mainly in large corporations at this point. I personally hope that all this buzz around connectivity will drive more widely adopted standards for robotics because connecting two devices with an actual cable and making them talk to each other is still complicated for a lot of users.
4. Sawyer goes live
Rethink Robotics showed their latest robot live on the show floor. It performed an electronic testing machine tending application flawlessly, proving to be faster, more robust and leaner than its older brother Baxter, which won the Game Changer Award as Best Education Solution. At the beginning of the event, Rethink announced that they are now taking orders for Sawyer.
5. From robot components, to robotic solutions, to robotic services
Do we now have the building blocks to quickly bring to market robotic solutions? It was really interesting for me to watch several of my peers in the Object Sensitive Gripping for Multi-Purpose Applications panel discussion as they are making the transition from being a gripper company to becoming a solutions provider oriented company. Just as interestingly, we're starting to see more and more companies using robots as a tool to build a service company around. One example, is Blue River Technologies, they sell services to lettuce producers to reduce labor and optimize yields. The winner of this year's Pitchfire was, Autonomous Marine Systems, they also follow a similar model. They use autonomous Datamarans to collect data that they sell to their customers. As robotic technology is an enabler to create a lot of value, why not capture all that value?
6. Funding for robotics
Several startups I could talk too recently got funding from traditional venture capital companies or strategic investors. Several of these deals haven’t been announced yet, as many teams are still working behind closed doors to get to market as fast as possible. Follow the Robot Report to learn about them when the information becomes public.
7. Where are the robot users?
There was a lot of hype about the industry at RoboBusiness, but... were we all drinking our own scotch? Most of the speakers were coming from the technology provider side of robotics. Where were the robot users (the people who actually really matter a lot if you're building a robotics company)? There were some robot users visiting for sure, but if you look at the list of speakers, it looks like John Dulcinos from Jabil was pretty much the only one giving the point of view of the robot user. It would be interesting to have more of that kind of perspective in the coming years.
8. From deception to disruption?
Are we there yet? How long have we been hearing that robotics is about to boom? The convergence of demographics challenge and new technological enablers have been advocating for at least 10 years, predicting the phenomenal growth of robotics. We all get enthusiastic... then technical and business challenges bring us back to Earth. In the IBM - Watson's keynote, we were all in awe watching this researcher interact with a Watson-powered Nao robot on stage... until we learned that everything was staged. This is the great illusion and a great illustration of the current 'almost there' state of robotics.
Many people discussed also the disappointing results of the Amazon Picking Challenge held a few months ago during ICRA 2015. My point on this is that it's good to remember that the initial DARPA autonomous driving car challenge was also painfully show to watch. The biggest benefit of these events is to expose top researchers to what the most relevant problems are that they should be working on, which is exactly what's happening in the logistics field. As Kurzweil pointed out in his keynote, timing is critical: you need the right innovation at the right time. Would Facebook have grown so fast if it had started 20 years ago? No, of course, it needed a sufficient critical mass of Internet users and a big open space at the same time. Robotics is not the Internet, there is more inertia involved, but it is accelerating at an interesting pace. There are plenty of startups, funding is coming in, some acquisitions. We just need a few more commercial successes (product proofs) that robotics can capture value to really light up a big fire.
9. Silicon Valley is a big robot(icist) magnet
It seems that Silicon Valley has already reached a critical mass in robotics to create a winner take all scenario like it did with other tech sectors. The recent Google acquisitions, just by itself, created a significant brain drain of robotic talent. If you add up the recently funded startups and the other big players entering the field, the robotics job market is really dynamic. You already have a lot of technical know-how there, but the robotics skills, the robotics people that can bring the software, electronics and mechanics together is very scarce. Moreover, the existing industrial and academic fabric of the Valley offers great synergy for robotics (software, AI, chip manufacturers, world class universities in robotics).
This might be the reason why RoboBusiness is skipping Boston next year to go back to San Jose, September 28 & 29, 2016. See you there!