E D U B O T S
SHAPING THE FUTURE OF ROBOTICS
KITE Robotics Part I: Inspiration To Invention, by Stefan Spanjer
Stefan Spanjer is part of the Mechanical Engineering & Mechatronics program at Twente University, Enschede, Netherlands, and the Founder and CEO of KITE Robotics.
Key Innovations in Treatment of Exteriors (KITE Robotics), develops innovative robotic solutions for precise, safe, and cost-effective cleaning of building exteriors. Inspiration can come from almost anywhere, and ironically, the inspiration for KITE came on a sightseeing trip to New York City, not in the Netherlands where I attended university and studied mechanical engineering and mechatronics. And that trip to New York came about by chance.
In August, 2010 I was focused on my Masters Degree — one year of academic courses and a second year comprised of an internship and thesis. While the courses would be completed at Twente University, I wanted to do my internship in the United States so I wrote to 50 organizations/ people in Silicon Valley, but received no positive replies. Some didn’t reply at all and I had to secure a position soon.
The value of an internship cannot be overstated. It’s a time to learn a lot about yourself, both strengths and weaknesses. On the advice of Twente Professor, Just Herder, I redirected my search to Europe and was soon accepted at Datacon in Austria. Datacon produces high-precision assembly equipment for the microchip industry, and I analyzed the accuracy of one of their platforms. While in Austria, I learned to ski and improved my German, but most importantly, I built confidence in my technical skills. At the university you learn a lot, but you don’t realize this part. I also discovered that I like to be involved with more than just technical issues. I enjoy business operations, too. The company Datacon gave me excellent feedback, and that gave me the confidence to apply in the United States again.
With encouragement from Professor Herder, I was accepted by Professor Dollar’s GRAB Lab at Yale University in New Haven, CT, where I would complete my Masters Degree. The GRAB Lab conducts research into robot manipulation and biorobotic systems, which I found fascinating.
My subject was cable-driven grippers, their degrees of freedom, and their ability to pick up a variety of objects. My daily supervisor was Professor Ravi Balasubramanian. He had a Post-Doctoral position at Yale and during my time at Yale he received a Professorial position at Oregon State University, where he now leads the OSU Robotics and Human Control Systems Lab (http://mime. oregonstate.edu/research/rhcs/).
So, at the end of my Masters program, there was communication between Enschede, New Haven, and Oregon. What I learned here is that distance doesn’t matter, nor do the number of time zones (three in this case). The most important thing is that the relationships are solid and everyone has the same goal. Communication becomes extremely easy then! This resulted in two solid conference papers and the receipt of the Wim van der Hoek Award.
While at Yale, I took several sightseeing trips to nearby New York City, and on one of these trips I visited the Empire State Building. On the 80th floor, before you take the final elevator to the 86th Floor Observatory and the top 102nd Floor, you can watch a short film chronicling the planning and construction of the building. It shows window cleaners in the early 1930s hanging by ropes and pulleys, hopping from one window to the next, while holding their equipment and tools. It was incredibly dangerous, but what is more shocking is that it’s done exactly the same way today. More than 80 years later, the technology has hardly advanced. The suspended platform method is not much safer, especially when the equipment is left on the roof year-round, exposed to the elements. I knew there was a better alternative.
I began to discuss my ideas via weekly Skype sessions with Professor Herder. Back in the Netherlands again, we came up with a platform which is motion controlled by a system of cables. We then developed the software, hardware and different prototypes. This became KITE Robotics, the robotic window cleaning solution. It’s very important to find a few advisers or ambassadors with specific expertise who are willing to support you. Support from Twente University’s entrepreneurship program, Kennispark, is therefore very valuable. If there is something you want to do, you can do it! There is always a way if you use all of your resources and look to qualified people for guidance.
In the next issue, we’ll discuss the technology behind KITE (www.kiterobotics.com) and possibly some field test results.