This is the first post in our Startup Spotlight series featuring new robotics companies from around the world. We’re inviting representatives from the companies to describe their technologies and how they see the marketplace. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.
Robots are rapidly learning how to make more decisions for themselves, and now more and more of them are leaving the lab and are going to work in factories, warehouses, hospitals, and offices. In a recent 60 Minutes piece, correspondent Steve Kroft describes how robots are appearing more often in different types of workplaces; in fact, many of the companies mentioned in the piece will be displaying their robotic creations this week at the Automate Show in Chicago. These companies, including the firm I've recently joined, Industrial Perception, Inc., or IPI, are working to make robots ready for mainstream use by America’s manufacturing and logistics facilities.
The Automate show marks a turning point where a new generation of smarter robots finally have technology robust enough to work for initial markets such as logistics, distribution, and manufacturing (beyond the auto industry). Rethink Robotics’ two-armed robot Baxter and Adept Technology’s mobile robot Lynx are two examples of radically new technology for industrial automation. Today, this technology will help factories; but these machines could one day lead to robotic applications in the home once their cost drops.
Recently, a group of software engineers from Willow Garage, a privately funded robotics research company, also recognized that it is easier for a robot to go to work for a business before it can work at a home. The result is IPI. The founders, including Kurt Konolige and Gary Bradski, members of the perception group at Willow Garage, worked to advance 2D and 3D computer vision algorithms and robot motion planning.
Now IPI wants to develop advanced technology for 3D vision guided robots that can determine the differences between shapes and be able to manipulate items from a pile of different objects, all while reliably avoiding collision with other things within its work environment. One of the goals is to enable better performance in bin picking and automated mixed case handling between containers, trucks, and conveyors.
Konolige has been a senior computer scientist at SRI International, a fellow of AAAI, and is no stranger to starting robot companies; he founded Videre Design, a maker of stereo hardware and software, and co-founded ActivMedia Robotics (later MobileRobots, bought by Adept Technology in 2010). Bradski founded the popular Open Source Computer Vision Library (OpenCV), has 69 publications, and 32 patents in computer vision. IPI is one of the first Willow Garage spin-offs to attend the Automate 2013 show.
The technologies that IPI relies on have been available, in different stages of development, within universities and research labs for the past decade. But this is the first time these technologies are packaged robustly and ready for hard work. If you're at Automate, come see for yourself; if you can't come, check out the video below to see what our robots can do and visit our site to learn more.
Erin Rapacki is a product manager at Industrial Perception, Inc. With experience across academia and industry in both the Boston and Silicon Valley areas, her projects have included consumer products, military casualty extraction, assistive devices, robotic telepresence, logistics, and industrial automation. Her current focus is as a technical marketer performing strategic planning, product management, and customer development for industrial automation and robotics organizations. Follow her on Twitter: @RobotDiva
Updated: 5 February 2013, 1:18 p.m. EST