Last Tuesday at the IEEE TePRA conference, former iRoboter and co-founder of Harvest Automation Joe Jones weighed in on the robotics design process and how a startup finds its market. Harvest Automation, as I mentioned a couple months ago, came out of stealth company Q Robotics, formed by a group of the original Roomba developers when they left iRobot. Jones is the CTO.
Harvest Automation's first and currently only product is a small mobile robot that picks up and moves potted plants in nurseries. These nurseries are extremely large -- much like fields in commercial farms -- and the potted plants have to be spaced evenly on a black plastic surface. If you imagine a worker picking up and moving these pots for ten hours on a hot summer day on a black surface, you can see why nursery owners have difficulty finding workers to do this. Enter the robots.
A view of the fields of potted plants at commercial nurseries. Photo courtesy Harvest Automation.
As this cnet article rightly points out, who wakes up one morning and decides, "Why don't I build a robot that moves plants?" The answer, said Jones, is "no one." The design process doesn't start with the robot; it starts with identification of a market. Q Robotics (as they were at the time) started by searching out several untapped markets that still utilized manual labor in undesirable jobs. By going out on numerous on-site visits and researching the size of the markets, they found about 15 different leads before narrowing down their focus to these nurseries.
Next they had to establish the actual task. They knew how big the pots were and how they needed to be spaced; from there, it was relatively simple to design the mechanism that would allow a small mobile robot to find, pick up, move, and set down a potted plant. They also needed to determine what they *wouldn't* be able to do: move the plants from, say, a flatbed truck onto the ground. Humans can continue to do that, or perhaps another automated system; but limiting the tasks was just as important as determining what they were in the first place.
Harvest Automation's prototype robot. Photo courtesy Harvest Automation.
A number of problems still face Harvest Automation's design. For example, Jones mentioned that a single robot would work a full "shift" and that it would move at roughly the same speed as a walking human. While he didn't indicate how long a shift is, if we assume it to be like a human's -- eight hours -- these robots will have some demanding power requirements that will only be fulfilled by heavy and probably expensive batteries. However, these are technical challenges that can be overcome; Jones and his engineers already know they have a market and they know these folks are willing to buy (in fact, he mentioned that some of these nurseries have already put up small amounts of funding to continue the development).
Jones brought this process up again on a panel the next day. When the panel was asked what technologies are limiting practical robotics development, Jones said that the technology is there -- the question at this point is how to put it together the right way for new applications. If wannabe-startups can focus on the applications instead of the technology itself, they could have a lot of success.