The Robotic Future is Here: Are You Ready?

By Bruce Schlee, President and CEO, Helical Robotics

This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Unmanned Tech Solutions.

Robot. Somewhat ironically for a machine, the word evokes emotions—excitement, fear—while sparking endless intellectual debates. Over the past three and a half years, I have been traveling around the world and talking with people about mobile robotics. Most people are fascinated by the thought, but I am constantly asked if or when “they will take over the world.” Although this is a popular theme in Hollywood, a planet run by robots is best left to science fiction novels.

I prefer to look at the evolution of robotics through the prism of its history. To understand where something is going, I often find it is best to remember where it’s been.

A Helical Robotics' Rendering of the Pipeline Inspection Concept.

A Helical Robotics’ Rendering of the Pipeline Inspection Concept.

In 1937, “Bill” Griffith P. Taylor completed the earliest known industrial robot, conforming to the ISO definition. Jump ahead about two decades, and Unimation, founded by George Devol and Joseph F. Engelberger, produced the first modern robot for industrial automation in 1956. Five years later, the world’s first working robot joined an assembly line at General Motors—and it was nothing like the metallic humanoid robots seen in movies or on television. In 1962, “The Jetsons” brought us Rosie (a humanoid robot maid). The first National Symposium on Industrial Robots (ISR) was held in 1970 and is still active today. The ’80s gave us “The Terminator,” and in 1990 Massachusetts Institute of Technology roboticists founded iRobot (also a 2004 film). iRobot has shown the world that mobile robotics can be part of everyday life, while the appearance of robotics in popular culture has played an important role in understanding its uses.

The Next Steps

As robotics technology advances and society accepts its outcomes, I expect that we will see more mobile systems. At TED Global 2011, Professor Daniel Wolpert from the University of Cambridge said, “We have a brain for one reason and one reason only—and that’s to produce adaptable and complex movements.” So it would make sense that the better we can make robots move, the more impact they will have. In short, I believe that the industry will produce more “Rosies” than “Terminators.”

To “achieve factory automation out of the factory,” Helical is working to create strategic partnerships and innovative products with industrial robotics manufacturers and multiple industry leaders.

Over the past 50 years, robotics “automation” has transformed the factory floor. It is now faster, safer, and cheaper than ever before to build anything you can put on an automation line. Industrial automation is incredibly advanced: It can weld, blast, and paint a car in a fraction of the time that it would take a human. I want to see this environment expand. Imagine if we could take those same machines and give them movement on practically any surface. It would change both the way we build the world and the way we defend it.

As an example, think of infrastructure. Founded in 2010, Helical Robotics is advancing technologies that will make the construction, operation, and maintenance of infrastructure faster, cheaper, and more reliable. Engineers at our Wisconsin-based company have created ways to streamline work using mobile, omnidirectional robotic devices that can scale a wind tower, traverse pipelines, or climb on ships, and that’s just the start. Our ultimate goal is to recreate the factory automation environment anywhere. But this won’t be done overnight or by one company. To “achieve factory automation out of the factory,” Helical is working to create strategic partnerships and innovative products with industrial robotics manufacturers and multiple industry leaders. We also envision working with other mobile robotic companies such as AndyMark and ICM.

For those more interested in defense and public safety issues, the ground robotics revolution might look different. I contend that the future of defensive robotics will be both more and less complex than it is today. Large unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and quadrotors, for example, are technological marvels in automation that will continue to advance in both capability and use. The same can be said for ground-based robotics, and through the industrialization of these systems, the resulting economies of scale will make it possible for even the smallest law enforcement agency to utilize them.

Helical Robotics' rendering of an MPX robot armed with an AR-15.

Helical Robotics’ rendering of an HR-MP20 armed with an AR-15.

iRobot, among others, has had great success with its bomb disposal robots, but I think the Roomba (autonomous vacuum cleaner) is more important. Remember Rosie: She was accepted because she was an appliance in the home, like your washing machine (also a robot!). Public perception and acceptance is the key to advancement and, more important, funding. By making people comfortable with interacting with robots, industry will be more willing to adopt new systems. That development will inevitably transition to defense.

Our Efforts to Take Automation Outdoors

Helical Robotics began building systems to assist in the inspection and repair of wind turbines. Our HR-MP series of climbing robots were originally designed to deliver payloads such as cameras, sensors, and tools up the outside of wind towers, ships, and other large metal structures. These systems are now being developed in combination with robotic arms to replicate the factory environment outside.

The defense connection is not farfetched: Imagine an aircraft carrier that can maintain itself and repair damage without putting sailors at risk. Payloads on robots can also include defense items such as weaponry. We are also working on simple ultra compact designs that could be used for rapidly deployable surveillance. These systems could be used in urban combat situations or as a short-term video network at large public events.

The defense connection is not farfetched: Imagine an aircraft carrier that can maintain itself and repair damage without putting sailors at risk.

Another system that we created, the HR-Javelin, was originally designed to inspect the inside of wind blades. Confined spaces are inherently dangerous, so we are currently working on designs that should make it possible for law enforcement and Homeland Security personnel to use mobile robotics in a much wider range of situations. The key to these systems is to make them easy to use and cost effective while still giving the officer or agent the ability to remotely view the situation. A good example would be using a Javelin at border crossings or during a traffic stop.

Looking Ahead

Over the years, robotics has faced three major hurdles with respect to being a viable solution in the civilian and military markets. The first is size and complexity of the systems required to make them function. The mobile computing world is making robotic platforms, quadcopters, and large UAV systems more accessible by the day. The second is power requirement, or more directly battery size. With the commercialization of new technologies such as lithium-based batteries, this is becoming less of a challenge.

The third and most important is cost. To get wide spread use and acceptance, we need to drive down cost. This is where the team at Helical Robotics feels we can have the greatest impact on the market. We are attempting to partner with companies to integrate existing technologies and place them in the realm of mobile robotics. This approach drastically reduces cost and time to market, thereby accelerating widespread use. As we create the necessities for a mobile factory over the next 10–20 years, don’t be surprised if you see robots building a bridge or inspecting under your car—but I think the Terminator is a long way off.