Receptionist. Robot. What's the difference?

Patty greeted me in the lobby. She gave me a bit of corporate history as she lead me to the conference room where I would meet Jeanne and Bill. She offered refreshments while I waited. Patty was an excellent receptionist. I didn't really care that she wasn't human.

Patty is the voice of the robot who lead me to my meeting with Jeanne Dietsch, the CEO, and William Kennedy, the CIO, of MobileRobots, Inc., in Amherst, NH. She also did what she was built to do -- bring humans the materials they need to get through the day. In this case, cookies and donuts.

Click the play button for a video tour of Mobile Robots, Inc.

A friend of hers, SodaBot, brought a small refrigerator so we could help ourselves to a cold drink to wash down the snacks.  

(click for a larger view)

Patty is a PatrolBot. What makes Patty and her pals so special is their ability to navigate independently. These robots learn their way around a facility and can then be sent to do a variety of chores. When first introduced into an environment, the robot is outfitted with a joystick and directed by a human. As the robot moves, it creates a map (click for a view of a map) The robot can wander around on its own, but being lead by someone already familiar with the territory is more efficient for the robots, just as it would be for a human on a first visit.

These robots use lasers to create the maps and then to find their way around once they've mapped the environment.

For Patty and Sodabot, this means that each can find its way back to its docking station after completing its appointed chores. That's where we thought Patty had gone when she left the conference room. But from the human interface, we discovered that some of the engineers also wanted some donuts -- isn't that just like an engineer ... always wanting to play with the robots.

MobileEyes (click for a larger view)

In the MobileEyes graphic, the teal line, is the robot's current trajectory. If the robot has a video camera, the interace can also display the realtime feed and the human can see what the robot "sees."

The application to direct their movement is straightforward. Once places have been given names, clicking a name in a drop down will direct a robot to that place.

The robots need some stability in the environment -- walls that don't move too far too often -- but they can also accomodate a fair amount of change. They aren't thrown off by a pallet of boxes that's here today and gone tomorrow or a human who is suddenly walking down the hall.

The robots can be used for delivery purposes; they can also be used for surveillance; they can be used to monitor an environment. With various add-ons, they can provide all sorts of information about a facility without a human needing to anywhere close.


  • They can detect smoke and then indicate where on its map the smoke was detected.
  • They can be used in server rooms to detect temperature fluctuations.
  • They can be sent on security patrols.
  • They can make deliveries of all sorts of materials. They can make deliveries in a hospital.
  • They can send a video stream for human review. Patty, for example, has a camera.

(click for a larger view)

What if a human gets in the way? These robots are "very sophisticated in terms of the environment they're in. So they can avoid you." according to Bill Kennedy. "A lof of the industrial robots, the AGVs [Automated Guided Vehicles] do have virtual bumpers on them now, but basically all they do is sense that there's something in their way and they'll stop. Our robots will not only sense that there's something in the way, but know where that something is and be able to go around it and just continue on."

Other robots can also have high installation costs and require a lot of maintenance. They move about by finding reflective targets that are placed at strategic points in the environment. That retro-fit can be expensive. The reflectors must be kept clean, which is not always easy in some places. They can be disabled by a simple stack of pallets in front of the reflector. And, they're easily sabotaged -- by workers who might fear loss of jobs.

As I toured the facility, I encountered other specimens. A large, all-terrain, all-weather robot -- would that be an ATR, an ATWR, a LAAR -- that can be guided by a DGPS system. The components of some PowerBots. And One PeopleBot -- isn't that an oxymoron? There weren't any AmigoBots home that day, however. Maybe I'll have to weasel another invite?

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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