Tech Standards Could Be Robotics Road Map to Success

By John G. Spooner  |  Posted 2006-06-21

Tech Standards Could Be Robotics Road Map to Success

PITTSBURGH—Robotics industry executives, in an effort to grow their nascent market, are hoping to borrow some experience from the PC business.

Several executives, speaking to attendees here at the RoboBusiness Conference & Expo on June 20, said the market for mobile robots—bots that move on their own and can interact with their surroundings—is eyeing steady growth over the next five to 10 years from new applications in areas ranging from consumer devices to military gear. They hope to see it follow a pattern similar to that of the PC industry, which took off during the 1990s.

But they said raising robots to the same levels of success will require more than simply uncovering untapped demand for their services. Robotics would also benefit from working more closely together to create technology standards, such as common software programming interfaces for mechanical subsystems. Creating parts that adhere to standards, much like the PC industrys, would help simplify robots design and production processes—but not necessarily cut down on their functionality—while helping to lower their prices.

"It would be nice if we could reuse existing work," said Paolo Pirjanian, president of Evolution Robotics, of Pasadena, Calif., during a RoboBusiness keynote. "To be able to do that, we need to make some sort of standard."

Pirjanian cautioned against one-size-fits-all standards, likening them to PC makers simply developing one standard for all of the various types of computing.

But he said robotics executives could stand to emulate some parts of the PC playbook, including using standard programming interfaces for software and readily available piece parts.

Seeing the potential, several companies are beginning to develop components such as subsystems, while others are working on software development tools.

Some PC industry players are even seeking to extend a helping hand in developing a more standards-based robotics industry.

Microsoft, for one, introduced its Robotics Studio robotic software development suite at RoboBusiness. Meanwhile, a host of bots use either its Windows XP Embedded or an embedded version of the Linux operating system. Many also use x86 processors and other PC components in their electronic brains.

Click here to read more about Microsofts new robotic software development suite.

"Robots are showing up more in everybodys lives," said Tandy Trower, general manager of Microsofts Robotics project in Redmond, Wash. "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."

Still other companies are working on standard hardware components for robots.

Some, such as Valde Systems, of Brookline, N.H., are focusing on individual robot subsystems. Valde Systems offers a line of stereo vision systems designed to offload image processing from a robots main processor, CEO Matthew Linder said.

Next Page: Robot building blocks.


For its part, Evolution Robotics aims to offer a series of specialized robot building blocks consisting of modules that include the necessary hardware and software to get a given job done.

Using its approach, the manufacturers wont necessarily have to design their own hardware or software for a given function. Instead, the makers can select an Evolution Robotics module and build it into a bot, promising to speed their time to market and reduce engineering efforts. Evolutions first such module, due later this year, will include its Visual Pattern Recognition technology for robot vision.

Evolution Robotics, which also offers stand-alone versions of its Visual Pattern Recognition technology, as well as a robot operating system, hopes to garner more business with its modules.

"Each of the technologies we have focused on has proven to [have] hard problems to solve," Pirjanian said. Offering the modules "helps OEMs to get access to these technologies."

To be sure, selecting a module from Evolution Robotics requires a robot maker to use the company as its supplier, given that there are few robot module makers at the moment and even fewer standards for putting various parts that go into something like a vision module together.

But even with the need to lower costs, jump technical hurdles and streamline development, several executives present at RoboBusiness cautioned against rushing headlong into creating standards.

"Standards can have a very positive effect in terms of things coming together" in an industry, Trower said. However, "it has to be the right kind of standard. More important is the agreement" between companies on how to design robot components.

Where PCs are generally used for entertainment, communicating or interacting with data, robots could be used in a much broader set of circumstances. Bots could be used for everything from entertainment to transporting goods. Not to mention taking on roles in combat and police work.

Thus its streamlining the components that go into the bots that appears to need the most work. Evolution Robotics offers one path. Microsoft aims to offer another by surrounding its development platform with third parties to create an application development suite of sorts.

"Instead of looking at the robot to solve the problem, lets look at the individual components" that go into that bot, said Lloyd Spencer, CEO of CoroWare, a robotics integrator based in Bellevue, Wash., during a RoboBusiness session. "One of the things that is still evolving and, I think, is badly needed is a common set of APIs."

Two robots using similar components might be used for cleaning sewer pipes or disarming roadside bombs. But the motors and other components that go into making them dont necessarily have to be different. Nor do the interfaces that connect them or the software that runs them, Spencer said.

Spencer, for one, suggested that applying standard APIs to parts such as electric motors and vision sensors would assist robot makers by making it easier for designers to write the software that allows their bots to navigate and avoid objects. It would also allow robot makers to use more off-the-shelf components.

Combining standard interfaces—something Spencer likened to mortar—and standard building blocks, which he said are like bricks, with some luck in finding the right opportunities will create recipes for growth, robot makers hope.

Ultimately, "Were going to be using a little less mortar and more bricks" in the future, Spencer said. "You get a more solid robot out of that, too."

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis in programming environments and developer tools.

Rocket Fuel