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Service Robots and Mobile Platforms: A Conversation With MobileRobots’ Jeanne Dietsch
By Robotics Trends Staff - Filed Feb 12, 2006
More Service and Healthcare stories
Founded 1995 and headquartered in Amherst, New Hampshire, Mobile Robots Inc. is a global leader in the design and manufacture of intelligent mobile robots, as well as sensing, navigation and control products. Mobile Robots serve their customer base, which includes corporate, academic and governmental accounts, through four different product lines:

Advanced Robotic Control System (ARCSinside™)
- Robot intelligence including navigation & behaviors
Service Robots
- PatrolBot™ Surveillance & Safety Rover
- PowerBot™ and PatrolBot Delivery AGVs
Development and Rapid-Prototyping Systems
- PatrolBot: the Indoor Applications Robot
- PowerBot: the Powerful, Agile Robot
- PeopleBot™: the Human-Interaction Robot
- PioneerDX: the All-Purpose Platform
- PioneerAT: the All-Terrain Robot
- AmigoBot™: the Team Robot
Robot Software
- MobileEyes™ real-time robot control GUI
- MobilePlanner™ robot work plan system
- SetNetGo™ network installation system
- ARCSinside robot developer modules

Recently, Robotics Trends President Dan Kara sat down with Mobile Robots CEO Jeanne Dietsch to discuss her company and the service robots industry in general.

Robotic Trends (RT): Can you tell me a little about the formation and evolution of Mobile Robots as a company? What is your background and how did the company get its start?

Jeanne Dietsch (JD): We met Grinnell More, now a principal of iRobot, when he owned his own robot manufacturing company, called Real World Interface (RWI). Our company, then called ActivMedia, collaborated in selling various robots that RWI manufactured. After a while it became apparent that Grinnell’s true love was military robotics and ours was more on the research and commercial side, so we went our separate ways. Our company retained the Pioneer robot brand name, which we used on the first robot we designed, the Pioneer 2 DX. That robot has since become the world’s most popular programmable wheeled robot.

RT: How would you describe your company to someone who has no idea what Mobile Robots does? What is your ‘elevator pitch’?

JD: Our company provides intelligent mobile robot brains and bases to OEMs, dealers, researchers, engineers and students, who use them to solve problems. The problems vary from “how do I secure and monitor potential hazards in a warehouse 20 miles from my customer’s main facilities?” to “how do I move product quickly and efficiently from station to station in an unpredictable environment” to “how can I let my customers walk around and see inside the products in my showroom without actually traveling there?” to “what do I use to carry and position my two robotic arms that I’m trying to coordinate to pick up a large bowl?”

RT: Who is the typical MobileRobots customer? Do you have a ‘typical customer’?

JD: A typical MobileRobots customer is an organization with expertise in networked electronics application, integration and/or programming. We also work directly with a few national accounts where we handle the actual installation and train less technical staff ourselves.

RT: What about ‘premier accounts’, companies with name and brand recognition that are using your products?

JD: We have sold thousands of robots to many hundreds of customers around the world: Amgen, Carnegie Mellon, Honda, Intel, John Deere, Microsoft, MIT, NASA/JPL, SAIC, US Army and the US Navy just to name a few.

RT: Does Mobile Robots have a particular vertical market segment where it is very strong? What about other vertical market segments where you feel Mobile Robots products and services would add real value?

JD: You know, of course, Dan, that commercial mobile robots are not an established market. We have robots being tried out for many applications and we expect most of those application to swell into markets. The reasons for automating are the same for every robot: work that’s “dull, difficult, dirty or dangerous” for people. In research and university markets, of course, we’re the leading company because our robots include state-of-the-art capabilities. This allows researchers to focus on their research instead of re-inventing the wheel or repairing their robots as they must with less capable or incomplete systems.

RT: It appears that your Advanced Robotic Control System (ARCS) technology is central to many of your platform products. Can you describe what ARCS is, its advantages and how it operates?

Robots with ARCSinside can map their workspace and perform tasks there within minutes. We call ARCS a robot “brain” because it includes the electronics, sensing, control systems and software needed to create an intelligent robot. A company can build its own robot platform—wheels, motor drivers, body, etc. – or it can buy the physical platform from us as well, such as PatrolBot, PeopleBot or PowerBot – and still run the same ARCSinside technologies.

RT: Mobile Robots offers a number of platform products, but I am also interested in the software that the company offers. Can you describe these offering and what they would be used for?

JD: We offer a popular API called ARIA (Advanced Robotics Interface for Applications) that runs under Linux and WINXP/SP2. Researchers like the ARIA libraries because they can work with them in C++, Java and Python and the source code is provided under GPL. We have also made contributions to the popular Player/Stage project from Brian Gerkey and friends at USC.

Our core commercial software is the basic ARCSinside package: SetNetGo™, MobileEyes™ and MobilePlanner™ These are tools for the commercial robot dealer/integrator/installer to set up systems, map and navigate the workspace and define robot goals, routes and tasks for their customers. End users may also use these programs to control their robots.

Then we have our ARCSinside Developer Modules. There enable integrators to do things such as: add accessories and have the readings appear in MobileEyes; control the robots from a third-party central control system; or even export data from the robot for their own programs.

These are our main software products, though we have other packages for researchers and educators as well.

RT: Using mobile robotic platforms assumes that there is a compelling reason not to use humans for the same purpose. What are some of the advantages that mobile robotics platforms have over their human guided counterparts?

JD: The job of robots is to assist people by doing tasks that are, again, “dirty, dull, difficult or dangerous.” Automation makes companies more productive, and productivity is the chief means for businesses and economies to grow. I like to tell people about my grandfather who bred workhorses. When Ford introduced a tractor, the family saga has it, the price of workhorses dropped ten percent per week. My grandfather went bankrupt and lost his farm. But for the US as a whole, improvements in agriculture during the mid-1900’s meant that instead of requiring 30% of the population to raise our nation’s food, only 2% were needed.

What did those former-farmers do? They went to work in factories, and their children – who no longer had to work the family farm – went to college and became the engineers who led us to the computer and the Internet Age, creating not only new jobs but entire new industries that are now among our most important sources of high wages today! The robotics industry has the potential to provide comparable productivity improvements.

RT: How do you generate sales leads for your products… outbound marketing, trade shows or do people find you?

JD: All of the above.

One of the major differences between robotics and other new technologies is that people expect to have mobile robots working with them and for them at work, in the home and in public places. That is, not only was there need for these types of products, there was a full expectation that they would be available for use at some time. Until recently, however, commercial mobile robotic solutions that were economically viable and robust were not forthcoming. What has changed to now make autonomous mobile robotic platforms cost-effective to build and buy, as well as reliable?

Improvements in PC performance, sensing, networks, software, battery technology, etc, etc., etc.

RT: Can you comment on the new all-weather robot you have under development? What features and functions does it have? What do you see as its market?

JD: We’ll save that conversation for another day: say, April 10, 2006.

RT: Who do you view as your direct competitors?

JD: We have different competitors in different markets. In research, K-Team of Switzerland is still around; of course RWI and Nomadics used to be our largest competitors, but they’ve both dropped out. In hospitals, Swisslog and HelpMate both compete. In security, Cybermotion used to be the best robot available, but they were early pioneers who never really achieved production-quality robots. In industry, FMC and the other AGV manufacturers compete somewhat, though they tend to make much larger AGVS than the current ones with ARCSinside. Of course, for us, all our competitors are potential customers; we would love to help them make successful solutions for their markets with ARCSinside!

RT: What is the Mobile Robots business plan? Do you intend to go public? How will you continue to differentiate yourself from your competitors?

JD: We’ve been in business for eleven years now. And as you well know, in nascent markets, competition is a good thing. Growing the market means growth for everyone.

As I mentioned, we see most other companies as potential customers rather than competitors.. What we do—supplying robots and robot brains to developers, dealers and integrators – is arduous work. Most companies just want to ship a product and be done with it. We have to support people who are taking robots to “boldly go where no [robot] has gone before!” This rubbing up against reality is something that very few companies both can and wish to do.

RT:MobileRobots Inc, which is based in New Hampshire, is one among many robotics companies that are based in New England, an area which you and others have described as the ‘robotics crescent’ or the ‘New England Robotics cluster’. Why do you think that robotics seems to be flourishing in this area?

JD: I think that we can thank the Boston brain pool, the 128 corridor and, specifically, Rod Brooks’ lab for seeding this area with the talent needed to build companies such as iRobot, Foster-Miller, DEKA and MobileRobots Inc.

RT: What can you tell us about the future of Mobile Robots? Can you comment on MobileRobots products that we might see in the future?

JD: Watch for our new outdoor robot, Seekur, on April 10, 2006.

RT: Thank you.

MobileRobots Inc (formerly ActivMedia Robotics)
19 Columbia Drive
Amherst, NH 03031
P: 800-639-9481

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