Robotics Road Map to Success

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

Several executives, speaking at the RoboBusiness Conference & Expo in Pittsburgh 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 such success will require more than uncovering demand for robotic services. Robotics would also benefit from technology standards, such as common software programming interfaces for mechanical subsystems.

Seeing the potential, several companies are developing 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 robotics software development suite at RoboBusiness. Meanwhile, a host of bots use its Windows XP Embedded or an embedded version of Linux. Many also use x86 chips and other PC components in their electronic brains.

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 offers a line of stereo vision systems designed to offload image processing from a robots main processor, CEO Matthew Linder said.

Evolution Robotics aims to offer specialized robot building blocks consisting of modules that include hardware and software to get a given job done. Using its approach, manufacturers wont have to design their own hardware or software for a given function. Instead, they can select an Evolution module and build it into a bot, promising to speed their time to market and reduce engineering efforts. Evolutions first such module, due later in 2006, will include its visual pattern recognition technology for robot vision.

Multiplying Robots

* Today: With notable exceptions such as the $149 iRobot Roomba vacuum, robots are generally few, far between and expensive. Most machines hardware and software are custom-built and cost thousands or tens of thousands to create.

* Future: The right standards could lead to legions of low-cost bots. Easy-to-use software design tools, combined with standardized hardware component interfaces, would lower costs, simplify design and speed development time.