Mobile robots aren't science fiction anymore

Just don't expect them to look, walk and talk like C-3PO in the Star Wars movies -- rolling and beeping like R2-D2 is more like it

Robots have turned a corner -- mobile robots used in commercial settings, that is.

"They went from being a hobby to being the real deal about 18 months ago," said Tony Diodato, co-founder of Cypress Computer Systems Inc. in Lapeer, Mich. "I believe the robot business will overwhelm our current business [selling building access controls] within the next year."

"In the past, people started with robots and then looked for a problem, but now they are starting with real problems and arriving at robot solutions," added Rob Stevens, vice president at Kiva Systems Inc., a maker of warehouse robots in Woburn, Mass. "We have seen that shift in just the last couple of years."

This market change has even been evident among users. "Those employees who were most vocal about saying they were able to walk faster than the robots are now the robots' biggest supporters and are always trying to find new ways to use them," said Doug Keeney, director of materials management at FirstHealth of the Carolinas' Moore Regional Hospital, a 385-bed facility in Pinehurst, N.C. "They're spending more time doing inventory or helping patients than walking the halls."

Technology convergence

Basically, campuswide Wi-Fi systems, inexpensive mobile computers, inexpensive sensors and mature software demonstrate that in the past couple of years, mobile robots have ceased being science-fair projects and have become commercial products. Just don't expect them to look, walk and talk like C-3PO in the Star Wars movies -- rolling and beeping like R2-D2 is more like it.

The FirstHealth robot system is based on the TUG delivery robot from Aethon Inc. in Pittsburgh. Peter Seiff, vice president at Aethon, said that the TUG uses dual off-the-shelf infrared and ultrasonic sensors, navigating by a custom map derived from a computer-aided design (CAD) map of the facility.

See a video of the TUG in action.

TUGs can be summoned through the facility's wireless network and interact with the elevator controls through wireless custom interfaces. They lease for about $1,500 per month, and Aethon has about 200 in use, he said.

TUG mobile robots from Aethon Inc. without various cargo-carrying attachments.
 
TUG mobile robots from Aethon Inc. without various cargo-carrying attachments.
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