Mario Tremblay came to the robotics field after spending six years in the Canadian Special Forces as an airborne soldier and combat engineer. In 1998, he left the military to resume civilian life and to further his education in robotics at École des Technologies Supérieures in Montreal. In 2003, at age 31, while still was studying at the university, he founded RobotShop, one of the industry's largest retail arms.
Earlier this year, Tremblay's company launched what is likely the industry's first dedicated robotics' accelerator, aimed at helping developers in the field speed up the commercialization of their products - be they robots or interconnected intelligent devices. By tapping into the accelerator, fledgling developers who submitted winning product ideas had the potential to access funding and marketing know-how. Then, once their creations progressed to the commercialization stage, they could leverage RobotShop's built-in global distribution channel.
As Tremblay himself noted at the time, "We have come to the realization that researchers are bogged-down by the structure and resources required to commercialize their products... We need to avoid having innovators re-invent the corporate wheel."
At about the same time, Tremblay launched MyRobots, a cloud-based service, still in the early stages of development, that would create a bridge between manufacturers and their customers. A combination app store and Windows-like environment that would permit robotics products to be monitored, repaired, and updated seamlessly, while also handling the devices' high-performance processing, learning, and communications needs, MyRobots could help solve one of the biggest problems stymieing development in the industry, the lack of a pervasive universal platform.
In this interview with Robotics Trends Editor Mark Ingebretsen, Tremblay describes the service in detail.
Special note to Robotics Trends Premium Subscribers: Learn more about the players in cloud robotics by accessing The Age of Cloud Robotics, by Esther Shein.
RT: How would you personally define cloud robotics?
Tremblay: For me, cloud robotics happens when we connect robots to the Internet and then, by doing so, robots become augmented with more capacity and intelligence. The cloud lets them communicate with other machines and serve their human operators better. Connected robots equal augmented robots. By collaborating with other machines and humans, robots transcend their physical limitations and become more useful and capable, since they can delegate parts of their tasks to more suitable parties.
RT: Who do you believe will be the first customers for the myrobots.com service you plan?
Tremblay: First, MyRobots.com will be used with consumer robots. Of course, the general robotic community will experiment with MyRobots.com, and it will also be used for robotics education in schools. In the short term, we also want to work with visionary manufacturers who will use MyRobots to monitor domestic robots in the homes of consumers. RobotShop engineers and technicians, in part from the RobotShop Hospital and RobotShop Support Center, will be there in the background to support customers and take care of the robots, should a problem arise or for routine maintenance. With the exponential evolution of intelligent robots, often launched quickly to the market, we cannot leave users alone to fend for themselves. We need to make sure those robots are connected to a Robot Surveillance Central, which collects data in order to improve the robots, improve the service offered to the end-users, and bring down the cost of maintenance, diagnostics, warranty and repair.
RT: Will robots connected to a cloud be able to automatically send information to the cloud on usage, problems, etc. the way software programs now do?
Tremblay: Well, that’s exactly the idea. This is basically what inspired me to launch MyRobots.com. I personally have six domestic robots at home, but I don’t know their status. I need my robots to talk to me in an efficient and centralized manner. MyRobots.com will be able to monitor robots to make sure they do their jobs well, and make sure that if there is a problem or required maintenance, that someone, somewhere, will be taking action to get the robot back on task as fast and as efficiently as possible. Via a service we currently operate called the Robot Hospital, we have already created algorithms to diagnose defective robots. These algorithms will now be in the cloud, and robots will use them by communicating their sensor status in real time. The intelligence monitoring the robots will take action if necessary; sometimes by itself (remotely), sometimes by alerting a human.
RT: Will the cloud contain an app store for robotic functions such as a dance routine (in the case of toys) or the ability to repair an automobile engine?
Tremblay: We think the future of the "Internet of Things" and cloud robotics is all about apps. MyRobots.com will offer a robot app store, and applications will be developed by RobotShop, the robotics community, or manufacturers. You will be able to find all kinds of apps for all your robot's needs. The idea is not only to allow the robot to learn new “tricks” on the fly, but also to abstract the robotic hardware in order to provide a platform where developers can create apps for all kinds of robots at once.
RT: Will your cloud service be universal, or will separate clouds be developed for individual clients?
Tremblay: We plan to have a universal cloud with private accounts. Both customers and robots will be able to share information with each other if they want to, creating in this way a universal bridge and allowing different robots from different manufacturers to communicate with each other. However, we will be able to offer a private cloud service if this is necessary and requested by the customer.
RT What is cloud robotics “killer app”?
Tremblay: Monitoring robots to collect data in order to improve the robots, improve the service offered to the end user, and bring down the cost of maintenance, diagnostics, warranty, and repair.
RT: What will the cloud paradigm do for the field of robotics over the long term?
Tremblay: I strongly believe that the future is cloud robotics. Tomorrow, the intelligence behind your robots will not be restricted to their physical platforms; most of the intelligence dictating their behavior and actions will be in the cloud. This intelligence will be transferable to all robotic platforms, real or virtual. Information, knowledge, and skills will be available instantly.
RT: When do you expect to formally launch your cloud service, and how will it be priced?
Tremblay: We plan to launch the beta version of MyRobots along with the first open-source, plug & play Arduino-compatible hardware within three months. For a limited time, people will be able to connect to MyRobots for free with the purchase of the hardware. This will allow the robotics community to quickly start experimenting with cloud robotics. One of the products we sell, the popular DFRobotShop Rover, will naturally be the first compatible robot, adding extra value to this platform for educational programs and experimentation. The service will hit the market at a very competitive price, but the exact price cannot be disclosed it at this time. Shortly thereafter, you will see other platforms become compatible as we are already in discussion with several manufacturers. We are currently evaluating different service plans and partnership options for manufacturers. We invite manufacturers to contact us if they want to know more about the benefits of making their robots compatible with MyRobots.com.