CES Always Robotics has been a weird show. This is not an indictment of the show itself, intended as a commentary on the state of robotics in general. It’s true that the organization behind the show dropped the name “Consumer Electronics Show” a few years ago (a fact that it insists on when it comes to its press materials), but at its heart the show is still a consumer electronics show. It’s about technologies.
For robotics, it is extremely difficult for the consumer to crack, for reasons of pricing, scalability, and the general unpredictability of operating in uncontrolled environments. Just as robotic vacuums have long been the main exception to that rule, robotic vacuums have been a consistent feature at shows for more than a decade.
Back in 2020 (the last time Nerdshala attended the show in person), I wrote a headline, “Companies Take Baby Steps Towards Home Robots at CES.” Appropriately (for reasons that will be clarified below), the first person I cited in the piece was Labrador Systems co-founder/CEO Mike Dooley, who told me, “I think there are fewer fake robots this year.”
Obviously, “fake” is a loaded word in this – and just about any context. But it is not wrong either. CES has been a forum for simulated robotics – and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is simple: Robots are an easy way to view science-fiction material. Robots, flying cars, space and now the metaverse. If you want a shorthand way of telling the world that your company has a head in the clouds in the most practical way, you take out (or get out) a robot.
They’ve been a common fixture for years at press conferences at companies with arguably limited investments in actual robotics R&D. And there’s a big, gaping hole between science fiction and that year’s fifteenth robot vacuum. What we’ve started to see is that companies start to fill that gap. Startups have played an important role in this. But the role played by automotive companies is just as important.
In the lead up to CES, I wrote a 10-year excerpt reflecting on the biggest trends from CES 2012. One thing that impressed me is the shift the show has made away from things like handsets (Mobile World Congress has taken a lot of the wind from those sails) and toward other industries — mobility in particular. Carmakers have a big role to play in all of this, both in terms of how they use robotics in the manufacturing process as well as the role these technologies play in the future of companies – starting with autonomous driving and well getting ahead.
For those reasons, I’m probably not surprising anyone to say that the joint Hyundai/Boston Dynamics press conference drew some of the biggest headlines from the robotics world. Tuesday night’s show rides the line in an interesting way. As a company, Boston Dynamics has always taken a practical approach to robotics. Sure, they look like the stuff of science fiction to many people, but the products the company shows are very real.
This was in stark contrast to the fanciful concepts that Hyundai put center stage. Watching a video of Spot serving as a real-world avatar for the family cruising through the metaverse was, in a word, strange. Boston Dynamics has suggested several possible jobs for its quadruped robot over the years, but somehow, to the best of my knowledge, an avatar of Mars had not surfaced. I had the opportunity to ask founder Mark Raibert a few questions, and opened up with it, asking how the Hyundai acquisition would affect an aggressive — but pragmatic — approach to robot building.
Last night’s presentation was on the fantasy side. The future was a science-fiction projection. How deep will the Hyundai acquisition have an impact on Boston Dynamics’ roadmap going forward?
It’s early days, six months. I would say that, on the one hand, there seems to be a commitment at Hyundai to keep doing what we’re doing. I think you see all the things that we’re doing, in a really advanced position, is continuing. we are going to do [Atlas, Stretch and Spot], There is more investment going on. Production and research in the case of atlas. We’ll add additional robots on that to what I’ll call the Boston Dynamics side. While this is ongoing, we are also building a relationship with Hyundai, and launching a few projects […]
Hyundai is a big company. There are many different sub-companies, but we are talking about them all. We’re not exactly sure who all the interaction partners will be, but we are planning for a stronger set of interactions. I don’t mind that Hyundai is going to come over and say, ‘Who are you, stop this. Be something different. On the contrary, if anything, they are very excited to see us continue. Although we are making products, we have also been a R&D company for a long time. I think they see value in that and they’ll continue to invest in that, so we can continue to drive the legacy, as well as the business side of things.
He was clearly enjoying during the event. It’s, in many ways, an ideal situation for a lifelong roboticist: suddenly seeing a whole influx of resources from new corporate owners who want to deliver the Moon and the stars — or, at the very least, Mars. I appreciate Rybert’s off-hand mention that Mars still has a path to the spot.
I had a follow-up question with Hyundai’s VP and Head of Robotics Lab, Dong Jin Hyun, who said, similarly, the Personal Mobility PND plug and drive platform is also a “proposition/concept”, adding that the company will be “soon”. Only show the real applications of PND.” For now, at least, we’re stuck with some far-fetched videos.
Before we move on from Boston Dynamics in its entirety for the week, a fun one aside from Rybert. In the company’s previous visits with the domestic/consumer market, “we worked with Sony Aibo for years to create something you’ve never seen, but were capable of more.” The latest Aibo was a pretty cool piece of machinery, but you have to wonder what a pet Boston Dynamics dog would have looked like. Less cute and more technically impressive, if I had to guess. Hope it never got to know how to open doors.
As I mentioned last week, the big thing in the trend on the robotics front at CES are UV-C disinfecting robots. It makes a lot of sense on its face. It is a way to leverage existing indoor mapping/navigation techniques with a major hot button topic during the pandemic. The list includes:
- ADIBOT, which comes in S (stationary) and A (autonomous) models. Afterwards, the company says, “ADIBOT-A is a fully loaded autonomous disinfection solution that can be programmed and mapped to navigate one or multiple floor plans independently. ADIBOT-S 360 Offers intelligent security features including -degree radiant light coverage, powerful UV-C disinfection, autonomous movement using U-SLAM mapping, secure apps, dedicated server and cloud-based connectivity, automatic recharging, and ‘risk mitigation’ .’ cameras, pir sensor.
- LG announces a technically exciting name autonomous robot with disinfectant light at the end of last year. “This autonomous UV robot comes at a time when cleanliness is a top priority for hotel guests, students and restaurant customers,” Roh Kyu-chan, VP of Robotics, said in a statement. “Consumers can have peace of mind that the LG UV Robot will help reduce exposure to potentially harmful germs.”
John Deere also made headlines this week with the long-awaited arrival of its fully autonomous 8R tractor. The system, which includes six pairs of stereo cameras, a pair of Nvidia Jetson modules and a GPS guidance for fully automated operation, will be available in select parts of the US starting this fall.
“This precise location-sensing technology (already) enables farmers to plant seeds, spread nutrients and harvest their crops without touching the steering wheel,” CTO Jahmi Hindman said in a release. “Without this self-driving technology, farming is incredibly exhausting, both mentally and physically. GPS technology allows farmers to spend their time in the cab of a tractor, viewing the real-time data they are working on. are and are making adjustments.”
Coming back to Mike Dooley, the Labrador eventually showed off a production version of his assistance robot, the Retriever. It’s one of the more compelling household robots I’ve seen in a while—namely because it deals with the very real issue of helping older and mobility-impaired people live on their own. At its heart, it’s a robotic shelf, but one that could potentially provide a lot of support to those who want to live independently.
Labrador also used the opportunity to announce a $3.1 million seed co-led by Amazon’s Alexa Fund and iRobot Ventures.
I’m still crawling through the virtual halls for more interesting robotics co-op this week, and expect a few more to come in next week’s newsletter. Meanwhile, a lightning round / stray thought.
- After being a mainstay for many of the past CES, there’s no robot at Samsung press conferences; It appears that the company is all set to talk about sustainability. I’m all for the sustainability thing, obviously, but I wonder what this means for the company’s robotics ambitions. To be honest, I’ve never been entirely sure how far/extensive that goes beyond showing some good demos.
- French (elsewhere) robotics firm Now showed Its Vineyard robot, TED, aims to deploy in areas of California. “The labor issue and the need to reduce pesticide use are global challenges,” said COO Ingrid Sarlandi. “With its autonomous agricultural robots Oz, Dino and Ted, Nowo addresses these issues to ensure a sustainable agricultural production in phase with people and the environment.”
- Dosan announced that it has sold 1,000 Cobots and has raised $33.7 million, as it showed off its new robotic camera system. “We look forward to accelerating the growth of our business with the recently raised funding,” said Junghoon Ryu, CEO, Doosan Robotics. “We will further enhance the competitiveness of new products and software that are integrated with our proprietary technology and strive to position ourselves as the number one market share holder in the global Cobot market.”
- And, of course, I would have remembered if I hadn’t mentioned Amagami Ham HamThe latest robot from Kubo maker, Yukai Engineering. I’ll let this quote about the finger-nibbling cat robot speak for itself. The robot uses a special algorithm, a “hemalgorithm”, to randomly select from two dozen “nibbling patterns” to keep users interested. The company is launching a crowdfunding campaign for the robot this spring.
Will 2022 be the year you subscribe to Actuator?!