Robots Move Into Corporate Roles

ActivMedia's Jeanne Dietsch says mobile robots make good corporate citizens.

Although robots have long been essential to manufacturing, other industry sectors have been slow to adopt the machines. Companies like ActivMedia Robotics LLC are trying to change that. ActivMedia designs intelligent mobile robots, sensing systems and controls for enterprise use. The Amherst, N.H.-based firm has more than 2,000 units in the field, says CEO Jeanne Dietsch. She spoke about robots and their future in IT with Computerworld national correspondent Robert L. Mitchell.

Jeanne Dietsch, CEO of ActivMedia Robotics LLC
Jeanne Dietsch, CEO of ActivMedia Robotics LLC

What is a mobile robot? Think of a PC connected wirelessly with wheels on it. That's what it is, with motors connecting the wheels to the PC. Inside we have a server and a client [and] an off-board client, which we call the command and control system.

What technology advances have made mobile robots more viable for business use? You can pull [the robot] out of the box, and you start the robot learning the building by driving it around with a joystick. As soon as it has learned the building and created a floor plan, it can drive around on its own. We could not have done that four years ago.

You sell the PatrolBot as a roving security device that includes audio, a navigational laser, a video camera and other sensors. Why would I use that in the enterprise? You would use a robot to increase reliability, to increase flexibility, to increase redundancy, to provide better situational awareness to the staff, to reduce risk to the staff and to save money.

[PatrolBot] provides situational awareness to the other guards. To be looking at something and to see the floor plan, see where the robot is in the floor plan and what it's looking at perhaps from a 360 view and a pan-tilt-zoom view, that gives you what's called situational awareness.

How does PatrolBot find and interact with an intruder? The standard PatrolBot has two-way audio. It also has text to speech, and it can play WAV files. The video is pan-tilt-zoom, and we have a 360-degree camera. You can also get a configuration of the robot that will flash startle lights. One thing security loves is that you can see the people walking by the robot because of the laser, even in the dark. So you can see their footprints moving across the floor plan.

The robot can set up what's called a laser checkbox, and if anyone walks through this particular area, the robot will notify the guard. Some of the robots have some sort of access control system, a card reader or iris scanner on them. So they can say, "You must identify yourself now."

And if you don't? Well, it has alerted central control, so if central control doesn't get an identifying tag, depending on the facility, all the doors can lock or someone can come racing down and get you.

What other tasks can it perform? For insurance purposes, you have to check tags on fire extinguishers and defibrillators to make sure that they are in operation. The robot can go there, automatically zoom in [and] take a high-resolution photograph. Each of those photographs is time- and location-stamped.

If you have the system integration module, you can link up with a third-party control system. In that case, if it's integrated, the Honeywell alarm can call the robot to the door. Eventually you'll be able to follow the person, but now it just tells the person, "You must swipe your card." It can notify the alarm system of its location.

What role can robots play in the data center? Energy optimization, RFID reading for tracking servers and assets within the center, surveillance and troubleshooting, particularly in remote facilities. Also, you may have alarms coming from within the [computer monitoring] systems, and the robot can be called automatically to go and investigate.

Can it communicate with other IT systems? We've set ours up to communicate with text or XML via our ARCL command language. This is good because it's compatible with both embedded controllers and PCs. Many building-automation systems are functioning with embedded controllers.

If you're going to use it for energy conservation, it's got to be talking to the rest of the building, to your HVAC and the rest of the systems. To move around the building, it may have to talk to your elevators, to electronic doors.

In the developer software that comes with it, there's a system integration module that uses simple text that just permits the system to send data into your security system or your Tivoli system or whatever. The interface development module takes things like the floor plan and allows you to export those and the video from the robot into your own application.

What does it cost to buy, configure and maintain a mobile robot? It would start around $40,000. There is a 10% per year maintenance fee. We recommend that you clean the laser cavity and the laser once a month. Quarterly, you should change the batteries and do some other cleaning.

How do you envision these robots working with building-automation systems? People are most interested right now in energy optimization because energy is such an issue. The thing people like most is that the robot is moving in the middle of the space where people move. You're not going to hang six sensors in the middle of a hallway, but that's really where you want to know what the temperature is. That's why people like the robot. It goes where the people go.

What will be the next big thing in mobile robot technology? The forefront is in outdoor three-dimensional navigation. We are working on things like, How do I follow a road in a private facility?

For the IT community, what they'll want is better manipulation [of objects]. Now we're doing some simple manipulation, what's called a one or two degree of freedom manipulation. Right now we can transport things, we can carry, we can sense, we can look. But being able to adeptly manipulate things is what the next challenge is.

ActivMedia's PatrolBot
ActivMedia's PatrolBot
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