The industry for mobile robots—machines that can interact with their environment and navigate on their own versus fixed-function bots—is emerging from university labs into the mainstream. Many robots are still rudimentary and expensive to manufacture. And companies that make the bots often admit they are still searching for an audience.
However, given that the latest mobile robots can perform jobs that are dangerous, difficult or even tedious for humans—such as cleaning sewer pipes—the number of bots in use is expected to increase steadily over the next five to 10 years, robotics industry executives told eWEEK during the RoboBusiness Conference & Expo June 20-21 here.
"Its not a question of if were going to work with a robot in the future—its how many robots?" said Tandy Trower, general manager of Microsofts robotics project, in Redmond, Wash.
Thats because companies are working toward delivering more specialized, lower-cost robots, Trower said.
For its part, Microsoft on June 20 delivered at the show a beta version of its Robotics Studio, a suite for developing software that runs robots, with the goal of assisting robotics at several levels, ranging from student experiments to commercial systems.
"Robots are showing up more in everybodys lives," Trower said. "What were doing is trying to put in place, through this Robotics Studio, a set of development tools that will make it possible for people to build robotics applications to help further this markets potential."
Evolution Robotics, which also attended RoboBusiness, offers a series of robotics products, including its ViPR (visual pattern recognition) software, which helps robots navigate.
In addition, Evolution Robotics offers a robotics operating system and, in the future, aims to deliver low-cost robotics components that combine the hardware and software to deliver things such as visual pattern recognition.
Given these developments, it may be prudent for CIOs and other senior IT managers to monitor the industry, robotics executives said. But who takes on the responsibility of managing robots remains an open question, since few commercial bots are on the market. Will CIOs manage robots as they do servers? Or will a new position emerge—say, a chief robotics officer?
"The CIO is a natural choice," said Paolo Pirjanian, president of Evolution Robotics, in Pasadena, Calif. "It may require implementing a new role in the [IT] organization to handle robots," Pirjanian said.
Those management roles will be sorted out once robotics executives can cook up products that are seen as essential, not unlike TVs, refrigerators and even, more recently, cell phones and devices such as the BlackBerry.
"I think the next wave of trying to take costs out [of businesses] is going to be through robotics," said Aldo Zini, CEO of Aethon, a Pittsburgh company that makes the $1,500 Tug robot for the health care industry. Robots such as the Tug, designed to deliver as much as 500 pounds of goods, can help reduce labor costs, Zini said.
The Tug, which runs for about 10 hours on a battery charge, can deliver food, medical supplies and other materials, stored in carts, throughout a hospital.
The bot navigates using on-board software to plan its route. It uses a series of light "whiskers" to stay on course and avoid obstacles. It can also communicate via a wireless network.
Although the Tug doesnt necessarily tax a hospitals IT infrastructure, Aethon still has to win over CIOs, Zini said.
"We have to make sure that the CIO understands what were doing because if they dont, theyll be the first to cut us off at the knees," he said. Otherwise, Zini said hes had little trouble with CIOs. Yet, given their positions, CIOs are likely to start to see more robot traffic in the future.
Companies are hoping to win by creating bots that can tackle mundane jobs such as deliveries and pursuits considered harmful for humans.
RedZone Robotics offers robots that can clean, inspect and rehabilitate pipes used in sewers or other settings. Perhaps the largest initial user of robots will be the military. The U.S. military uses a fleet of 10,000 robots such as iRobots PackBot EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) to disarm roadside bombs in Iraq. Several groups work together on the military robots.
However, an Army-Marine Corps Robotic Systems Joint Project Office directly administers to ground robots operating in‑theater. It handles repairs as well as software and hardware malfunctions or upgrades, a Marine Corps spokesperson said. Maj. Gen. Charles Cartwright, manager of the Department of Defense FCS (Future Combat System), said during a RoboBusiness keynote that the military has been successful in using robots thus far.
The military aims to use FCS to combine the use of aerial and ground-based robots to give U.S. forces advantages by improving surveillance and transportation for soldiers.
The militarys interest in robots, along with the successes of more pedestrian products such as iRobots Roomba vacuum, has caught the attention of numerous companies.
Those companies, along with ones such as Microsoft that see a place for themselves in the mobile robot market, will continue to push robotics forward, executives of robotics vendors said at RoboBusiness. The result, Pirjanian said, could be robots that cost a couple of thousand dollars or less and perform jobs such as delivering interoffice mail.