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Interview – CoroWare Robotics – Behind the Scenes

Exclusive Robot Interview

CoroWare Robotics – Behind the Scenes

We caught up with Lloyd Spencer, President and CEO of CoroWare, Jon Mandrell, CoroWare Managing Consultant, and Kami Noland, Marketing Coordinator, to find out more about CoroWare’s entry into the robotics marketplace and its business philosophy and vision. The interview was conducted at the end of 2007.

—Tom Atwood

Left to right: John Mandrell, Kami Noland, Lloyd Spencer

Robot: When did CoroWare form and when did the relationship with Vassar begin?

Jon Mandrell: We have worked with Vassar College for a number of years now. Early on, it was producing custom robotic platforms for them. They had a specific application in mind and specified the requirements. We then put it together for them.

CoroBot robot.

CoroWare began in October 2003, and we began working with Vassar in March of 2005. Before that, we had already been prototyping small Windows-based robotic platforms for Microsoft, showing them what we could do.

In early 2005, we were approached by Vassar. They were looking for a small unmanned robotic vehicle where they could do some experiments in cognitive sciences. Ken Livingston, a professor there, was asking what kind of inputs do you need—sound, vision—what kind of sensors do you need to drive a vehicle remotely? What are the minimum set of inputs that you need?

That first platform was called the Surveyor. The reason they liked it was that they could easily add or remove sensors or applications—any kind of USB sensor you wanted. That’s where it all started. You could drive the robot remotely with virtual reality goggles and stereo sound. And the accelerometer sensor would have you sense a wall and back up. They were really experimenting with that platform. Then they started to do some experimentation with multiple robots that would communicate among each other as “swarming robots.”

Jon: If you look at nature, for example, individual ants, they are insignificant individually, but together they are easily replaceable and capable of doing a lot. Can you get a lot of a larger process done with smaller robots that are redundant? The idea is that although they cannot individually get the job done, together they can.

Robot: How does Microsoft Robotics Studio (MSRS) fit into this story?

CoroBot with gripper equipped arm.

Lloyd: One of the important aspects of Microsoft Robotics Studio is its support of concurrency and what is called coordination of run time. It is like taking a large task and breaking it down.

Jon: Moreover, the robot hardware is the tip of the iceberg. You see the hardware but there is a tremendous amount of stuff underneath. CoroBots support MSRS, and that provides a convenient infrastructure for a swarm of robots to communicate with each other, and to coordinate their activities together. When you get a bunch of robots together they need to share information, and MSRS provides fairly straightforward hubs to do that. So, a researcher does not need to worry about all the stuff underneath; rather, he or she will just need to figure out the tasks he is researching.

Robot: What is the current status of MSRS?

Jon: A few months ago, Microsoft released version 1.5, which included a number of incremental updates that make it much easier to use. Robotic programming is hard. They have a large community base and at this point have received a lot of feedback from forums and users.

Robot: In your opinion, will Studio be paralleled by other products or will it be the commanding standard?

Lloyd: It is early still, the jury is still out, but I will tell you that we are getting a tremendous amount of queries about it. Many companies are coming to us asking for advice on how to use it. External indications show a demand that is continuing.

Robot: I believe in an earlier conversation, you mentioned that some of the CoroWare group were involved in the beginning of Studio.

Lloyd: It started in 2004. June of 2004, we were giving a presentation to the Microsoft Research Group about what we were doing with robotics, and creating libraries. We were doing standardized interfaces for motor drivers and applications on top of that. We had a great exchange of ideas, so that when it came time to formalize it, it was called the robotics SDK (Software Development Kit). About the time that Jon Mandrell joined us, some months later, it had been named the Studio.

Robot: What CoroWare’s market and customer base?

Early prototype.

Lloyd: There are two parts of our business. One is related to “enterprise computing.” Some of that is for developing applications and some is for deploying server services as well. That comprises about 80% of our business.

On the robotics side, we had a humble start. We have worked with Vassar College. We have worked with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) company. Jon can describe some of the professional services.

Jon: We were asked [by the UAV] company to provide a core architecture to help them develop their next generation UAV. This included analyzing what they needed to do, where they wanted to go, the strengths of their team, and from that producing a high level architecture. A couple of members of our robotics team stayed with that company for the next 16 months to carry that through in the implementation phase as well.

The craft is fairly generic; it is not a military focus, although the military does use it, they have other uses as well. Our area was more the avionics and how the UAV communicates with the ground. UAVs have a host of safety concerns. What do you do if you lose contact—all of those design considerations, which are critical notwithstanding what the actual mission is. How do you keep the plane flying and make it follow a path?

Lloyd: Another customer is in the aerospace business. They wanted us to take MSRS and use it to control a robotic arm, and simulate that in Studio. The early Surveyor robots in professional services is where we got our start. And we have recently started selling CoroBot, and our initial sales are on target.

One more application was a workover in the UK. We go where our customers need us. We try to understand their requirements and offer services, solutions and products. Many of the early products were customized solutions.

Robot: How many employees?

Lloyd: I think we are about 36.

Robot: Is there a particular approach to robotics at CoroWare that you’d like to underscore?

Lloyd: When you design a robot, there are a group of trade-offs. There are simple things like battery life. You can make it last as long as you want. If it’s bigger, it weighs more, what is the tradeoff there? The physical design of a robot is very open. We realized we could not design a robot that every customer would want, because each customer will want their own customized approach. For example, we leave space for the different kinds of connectors that may be used in a PC and don’t provide a “skin” that would have to be cut to make a customized modification.

Robot: Any comments on the emerging category of “field robots”? Surveillance, etc. Is this an area that you address.

Early prototype.

Lloyd: For us, industrial versus consumer is not a big difference. There are problems to be solved and solutions to be created. Explosive ordinance disposal is an area-there was a recent article about soldiers buying RC trucks and driving them into piles on the side of the road to see if they blow up. That’s better than using a $100,000 robot to disarm that mine; you can buy a truck for $100, and if it blows up, throw away the controller and get another. So there are interesting solutions to a variety of problems.

The robots that wander factory spaces-is that more cost effective or reliable than having a person viewing what cameras all around are seeing? In sorting out robot applications we tend to do risk/reward ratios. If you ask a small robot to clean a floor in a mall, a tenant may not want a $50,000 solution. You might find a person to do this for years at $30,000 a year.

Yet, when you look in Iraq, what is the value of a person? Nobody really wants to put a number on it. We don’t want to lose anybody. That’s where the applications start. Where people could get killed, like in the mining example, where Robin Murphy dropped a robot down a drill hole at a coal mine. As the cost of robots goes down, the applications addressed will change owing to the changing risk/reward ratio.

It will eventually land where small swarming robots handle security applications. That will probably work better than one individual, or three individuals, who are security guards. Not only will it be less expensive-the robots will do a better job.

Robot: Where are PC based robots going? Will PCs be getting smaller? Will PDAs be used to produce very small and intelligent table-top robots?

Lloyd: PCs are “commoditized” and what you can get in a small, affordable package is just amazing. It is very hard to duplicate with custom boards. They are getting smaller and smaller; we are headed towards PCs on a couple of chips. My PDA fits in my pocket and has more horsepower and storage than my PC did five years ago.

MSRS has been released to support mobile devices. Running a robot with a Windows cell phone or PDA is doable. There are LEGO robots out there with PDAs strapped on to them. Everyone quotes Moore’s law, with capacity increasing and price decreasing, and who knows where that will stop.

Kami: Recent reports suggest a 25% annual growth in the demand for mobile robots. This puts some pressure on the developers to come up with the best solutions. CoroWare helps provide the developers with the tools they need to keep up an stay in the race.

The Surveyor 3000.

Jon: Look at the robotics marketplace and you see that the demand is just increasing. Look at the number of Roombas that iRobot ships every quarter. It is astonishing.

CoroWare’s CoroBot JAUS designed to bring affordability to military robotics research

On October 30, 2007, CoroWare announced a working alliance with RE2 to introduce a CoroBot JAUS (Joint Architecture for Unmanned Systems) mobile robot. JAUS is a Department of Defense standard that helps promote interoperability of unmanned systems. This newest CoroBot model is targeted to meet the needs of military robotics researchers and developers by implementing JAUS using the RE2 JAUS Software Development Kit (SDK). All models are equipped with a 1.2 GHz PC-processor and 40 G disk storage space. “By offering a JAUS-capable CoroBot, we intend to bring the affordability and expandability of the CoroBot product line to the military and companies that provide products to the military,” said Jon Mandrell, director of CoroWare’s Robotics and Automation group.

“We developed the RE2 JAUS SDK to provide unmanned systems vendors, such as CoroWare, with a complete tool kit to build JAUS compliant systems, while reducing development time and program costs,” said Jorgen Pedersen, president and CEO of RE2, Inc. “We’re pleased to be able to partner with CoroWare to provide them with a comprehensive solution for unmanned systems interoperability.”

RE2, www.resquared.com

Lloyd: Our hats are off to iRobot for creating a vacuuming robot that only costs about $200. As the Iraq war winds down, I think you’ll see some of these applications being used, and the growth of robotics will parallel what happened in the PC industry. Back in the 1970s, there were PC components in helicopters, and they eventually migrated to minicomputers and then to general purpose PCs. We will see something similar in the robotics field. But no one knows what that application will be. What will the big killer application be? When it happens, we will see a big jump in home robotics. It might be 10 years away, or sooner. We will just have to wait and see.

In order for this industry to really take off, we really rely upon the brilliance of students and researchers. So what we want to provide is the platform for these researchers. We will be there, talking with these researchers. We want to be where the ideas are being generated, and we are an easy company to work with. We provide an affordable platform that the researcher can build on, expand it, take apart and put it back together—that is what we are all about.

Robot: Thanks, all, for this informative and interesting interview!

Lloyd: Our pleasure!





CoroWare, Inc., www.CoroWare.com(800) 641-2676

CoroWare CoroBots, www.CoroBot.net, (800) 641-2676

Innova Holdings, www.InnovaRoboticsAutomation.com, (239) 466-0488

RE2, www.resquared.com, (412) 681-6382

RE2 JAUS Development Kit, www.resquared.com/JAUS-SDK.html

Feedback for MSRS, http://connect.microsoft.com/roboticsstudio

MSRS Development Center, http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/robotics/default.aspx