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Beam telepresence robot
The Beam family of robots: Beam, BeamPro, and BeamPro 2.
Photo: Suitable Technologies

Today, Blue Ocean Robotics, a Danish robotics company, is announcing the acquisition of Suitable TechnologiesBeam telepresence robot business. Blue Ocean has been a Beam partner for five years, but now they’re taking things over completely.

The Beam robot began its life as an internal project within Willow Garage. It was spun out in 2012 as Suitable Technologies, which produced a couple different versions of the Beam. As telepresence platforms go, Beam is on the powerful and expensive side, designed primarily for commercial and enterprise customers. 

The most recent news from Suitable was the introduction of the BeamPro 2, which was announced over a year ago at CES 2018. The Suitable Tech website still lists it as “coming soon,” and our guess is that it’s now up to Blue Ocean to decide whether to go forward with this new version. Blue Ocean calls itself a “robot venture factory.” I’m not entirely sure what a “robot venture factory” is but Blue Ocean describes itself thusly:

The company is known for developing professional service robots from the problem, idea and design phase to the development, commercialization and scaling phase. Every robot is placed in its own subsidiary which is responsible for scaling sales, customer service, support and everything else oriented towards global markets and customers. The parent company handles all development and production of robots across the organization. 

Ah, that explains it! Blue Ocean does already have a couple portfolio companies making very specific robots, including a UV disinfection robot for hospitals and a sort of mobile patient lift also for hospitals. They’re working on some kind of agriculture robot, too. I’d love to be able to tell you more, but the press release doesn’t offer much:

With the acquisition, Blue Ocean Robotics sees an opportunity to generate additional synergy: “Our development of robots is based on our own in-house created toolbox with reusable technology components. This means that we can build all of our robots fast, inexpensively, and better than others,” says Blue Ocean Robotics’ CTO John Erland Østergaard. “Some of our robots, for example the UVD disinfection robot, are already equipped with remote controls. With the Beam technology being a big seller in the healthcare sector, we can continue to grow our business within this industry by having our distributors present both UVD and Beam when they visit customers.”

Scott Hassan (left), one of the founders of Suitable Technologies, and Claus Risager, CEO of Blue Ocean Robotics.Scott Hassan (left), one of the founders of Suitable Technologies, and Claus Risager, CEO of Blue Ocean Robotics.Photo: Blue Ocean Robotics

The press release is very specific that Blue Ocean isn’t acquiring Suitable Technologies itself—they’re acquiring the “assets and rights associated with the robot Beam” from Suitable, which I guess means that Suitable is still around somehow. But it’s really not clear what Suitable is without Beam, which (as far as we can make out) is the entirety of what the company does.

Anyway, we’re glad that there’s enough interest in high-end telepresence robots to support this acquisition, and we hope that Blue Ocean will be investing in BeamPro 2 and further generations of the robot. It’s come a long way from the original Texai robot from Willow Garage, and still has a lot of potential. For more information, visit the new Beam website that Blue Ocean has just launched.

[ Beam ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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