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Mobile Robotics Enters the Mainstream
by Doug Evans
The Emerging Robotics Technologies and Applications Conference took place in Cambridge MA on March 9th and 10th. This event was held at the Hyatt Regency Cambridge, just down the road from MIT. The event was organized by Dan Kara and Robotics Trends, in conjunction with IDG.
If there is one key piece of information that I can convey about this event, it is that the conference was completely sold out. I counted approximately 300 seats in the main conference hall, yet the keynote presentation by Rodney Brooks of MIT was delivered to a "standing room only" crowd. I spoke with Dan Kara, who admitted that the turnout was greater than his expectations. Consequently, registration was closed prior to the conference date since the maximum attendance was limited by the small venue.
Presenters and sponsors of the event included all of the well-funded Robot startups like iRobot, Evolution Robotics, and ActivMedia Robotics. Taking a quick and unscientific sampling of the crowd, it was about evenly split between academic types and entrepreneurs, although the differences between the two are not always readily apparent.
The keynote address from Mr. Brooks reviewed the current state of the art and the emerging market for mobile robotics in the personal service market. Some of the examples of current and future products mentioned were "smart" prosthetics, robot assistants for the elderly, surgical robots, nurse robots, and personal household assistance.
The main session on Wednesday started with a presentation by Chuck Thorpe, Director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon. Dr. Thorpe reviewed some of the interesting work being pioneered at CMU, and also touched on the Red Team entry in the DARPA Grand Challenge.
The conference also covered a wide range of topics, including venture funding for Robotics start-ups, Mobile Robotics in the Military, and a presentation from Paolo Parjinian from Evolution Robotics on standardization of software platforms in the industry. The conference also included exhibitions like the PackBot and Roomba from iRobot, several development platforms from Evolution Robotics.
One of the more interesting sessions went into detail about the Centibots Project. This project resulted from a DARPA grant to solve the following challenge:
The solution was produced by SRI International in conjunction with Stanford University, using the ActivMedia Robot platforms (Amigobot and Pioneer), and a controller based on the VIA EPIA boards. Several dozen robots were turned loose to search and map the facility using SLAM (Simultaneous Location and Mapping) Technology. Slam uses a combination of sensors and odometry to identify and geo-locate all stationary objects within the search domain. The information is then fed back to the central control computer, which coordinates the search activity of the robots. The "object of value" (a pink box) was successfully located and guarded by the robot swarm.
We also got a sneak preview of the VIA Nano-ITX motherboard, which will be officially announced at CeBIT next week. This board is smaller than the Mini-ITX, measuring just 120 mm by 120 mm and consuming only 5 watts at 1 GHz. VIA is positioning this technology as the platform of choice when the solution calls for maximum power vs. minimum power consumption. I had an opportunity to handle the board "up close". This little guy will be a big hit as the main controller in applications that call for imaging and object recognition.
Another big surprise of the conference was the presentation by Stewart Tansley from Microsoft. Stewart is the Manager for Microsoft's University Relations Program, which is involved in funding academic robotics and embedded systems research. Stewart reviewed the Microsoft embedded systems products; Windows XP Embedded, Windows CE,.NET, and SPOT (Smart Personal Object Technology). If Microsoft went to the trouble to attend and present at this conference, one must assume that they are taking this market seriously.
Overall, this was a very good conference and proves that there is indeed something exciting happening in Mobile Robotics. Based on the success of this conference, Robot Trends has announced the next event will be held at in Santa Clara, CA this fall. Hope to see you there!
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