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Another Perspective


Cisco TelePresence is a software system that gives functionality and character to a robotic rolling plastic column dubbed Ava 500.  Ava, ambulatory hardware from iRobot, is five and a half feet tall.  It is packed with media transponders and features a display showing a remote operator's head.  Ava has plenty of company these days.  Some roving devices bring doctors to distant patients.

Cisco-iRobot Ava 500
When iRobot's hardware is woven into Cisco's TelePresence,
management no longer needs to know where to find a shoemaker

And back in computing country, both IBM and EMC are testing machines that patrol data centers.  If this catches on, you might get a glass house robot yourself, or be replaced by one.

It's probably about time ambulatory robots caught on in the business world; they have long since become popular at home.

iRobot says it has sold more than 6 million of its most popular line, the Roomba vacuum cleaning robot, which for more than a decade has been rolling across floors in more than 50 countries on six continents.  Basically a Roomba is the evolved descendant of Seymour Papert's Turtle, a device controlled via the educational language Logo.  Unlike the old Turtle, which required an umbilical cord, a Roomba runs loose and is managed by an onboard computer (and in some cases a remote control).  When its batteries get low, it rolls back to its charging station for a meal and a rest.  From time to time the robot's master must grab the thing, open it up and empty out its internal dustbin.  There can be a lot more to it, particularly in the case of the newer, more refined versions.

A Roomba is not only useful, it's amusing.  Evidence: There's an abundance of YouTube clips such as this one showing a baby hitching a Roomba ride.

Roomba in glass house
Roomba On Patrol
IBM and EMC believe a Roomba can improve rack room management
by carrying surveillance equipment around the server farm

Roomba is not alone in the domestic cleaning robot field.  In fact, there are so many participants and wannabes that, in addition to a tide of development sweeping the sea of startups forward, there is an undercurrent of merger and acquisition.  Last fall iRobot took out a potential rival, Evolution Robotics.  Evolution had developed a complementary product, a Swiffer schlepper called Silk that does for wood floors what Roomba does for rugs.

Some domestic robots have escaped the house and are running loose on lawns.  For eight years, LawnBott machines (designed in Italy, sold in the USA by Kyodo) have been cutting grass and then, like Roomba, returning to base for a recharge.  Prospective users who worry that a LawnBott, a brand still unfamiliar to most homeowners, might be too delicate can cozy up to a rival product from Husqvarna, famous for its chainsaws.  Husqvarna apparently believes that lawn mowing, which its tractors and walk-behind mowers do very well, will have a robotic future.

There are other domestic robots that can wash floors, clean swimming pools, scour rain gutters, wash windows, and help with pet care.  The manufacturers of these gizmos sell them.  In addition, there are a growing number of vendors offering equipment, service, and support.  One of the most comprehensive suppliers is RobotShop, which operates from a cloud presence but has offices in the USA, Canada, and France.  RobotShop carries quite an extensive range of gadgets, from electronic toys that can live on your desk (or a kid's) through domestic robots and on up to industrial machines.  The industrial robots can help patrol facilities, serving as eyes and ears and then some.  Some models sport arms that can move objects or grab things that the user wants to retrieve.  The high end of the RobotShop product range spills over into the police and military markets.  (Those segments are primarily served directly by robot vendors and by specialist suppliers.)

robot mower
Husqvarna Robot Lawnmower
Famous chainsaws maker Husqvarna thinks its future
might include robots for the yard and garden

The glass house robots that EMC and IBM are fooling around with are based on platforms that come from iRobot, gadgets in what the vendor calls its SPARK line, which is also known as the iRobot Create platform.  SPARK gadgets are sold to schools and provide students with some direct exposure to the basics of robotics.  When built up, a mobile base like SPARK can be grown into a moving column like Ava or a variation on that theme called RP-VITA that delivers a medical telepresence.

All of this stuff is within the technical and financial reach of most businesses and very possibly within the grasp of IT departments.  A prospective user doesn't need the kind of budget Google can muster for its robotic cars.  Besides, those cars won't fit in your data center anyway.

It's a bit soon to say whether a rolling robot would be cost-effective delivery vehicle for end user support.  A telepresence machine is bound to cost more than, for instance, a simple phone contact with a tech support department.  On the other hand, that rolling extension of a company's geek brigade might be a lot less costly than a personal visit to the end user.  This is particularly the case when a qualified support professional is far from the end user who needs help.  But these days the range of choices includes a lot more than phone versus personal versus robotic assistance.  For a lot less money than an Ava costs a user organization could provide user departments with tablets.  A video call, even a freebie call via Skype, would provide a richer contact experience than an ordinary phone call.  The user end of the call could be one of the excellent tablets that cost less than $200, if a 7-inch screen will do.

Parrot copter
Parrot Drone Copter
For just a few hundred bucks you can have
your own drone run by phone, video camera included

Surprisingly, the integration of rolling robots like the Roomba and mobile clients has never really gotten off the ground, at least not in a way that users of smartphones and tablets would recognize as user friendly.  The iRobot company offers a geeky interface that exposes the innards of a Roomba to external devices.  Bluetooth radios that talk to this connector are available and there is a community of enthusiasts that doesn't seem to be inhibited by the geeky nature of this setup.

I would assert that iRobot's blind spots provide an excellent market opportunity for any company that can truly tame a Roomba or one of its rivals.  But the gap between current iRobot devices and mass market mobile clients is huge.  iRobot has never opened its platform up to developers the way Apple has with iOS and Google has with Android.  In the fullness of time, iRobot might port its technology to a more or less standardized ARM computer.  But it is just as likely that some robotics engineers elsewhere leapfrog the iRobot folk.  Fans of the excellent iRobot products would undoubtedly feel that it would be a real shame for the robot company they love to be upstaged, but that's the nature of technology.  As the field of robotics advances, the companies that succeed will be the ones that embrace disruptive developments rather than ignore or resist them.

The gadget that may tip the playing field away from iRobot could already be in the market.  One candidate is the Parrot, a four-prop helicopter that can be controlled from an iPhone, Android, iPad, or iPod.  It flies around or hovers and sends video back to the device controlling it.  In some ways it is more sophisticated (and less expensive) than any iRobot product.  It packs 32-bit ARM brains, Linux, a video processing chip, ultrasound close range altimeters, and Wi-Fi communications.  And just as a Roomba knows how to steer clear of furniture, a Parrot has code that gives it aerodynamic stability and other functions that make it novice friendly.

The takeaway here is not that IT departments should buzz the end users they serve with phone home drones.  Rather, the message of Parrot and iRobot and the tinkerers at EMC and IBM is that talented specialists, such as doctors and IT hotshots and security experts, can avail themselves of affordable gadgets to vastly improve their reach and clout.  In some cases the most appropriate presence amplification devices are smartphones or tablets.  In other cases the way to best do the job might involve a roaming robot equipped with a display, camera, a mic, a speaker, and maybe even an arm or two.  In yet other cases a flying drone packing a video camera might be the best way to inspect a factory floor or observe a herd of farm animals or keep an eye on doings in a park or on a campus.

And if you think this is all a bit too exotic, maybe it's time for you to get a demo ride in a car packing a service like OnStar and a bunch of motoring context awareness technology.  Beemer up, Scotty!

— Hesh Wiener July 2013

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