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August 18, 2011

Telepresence Robots Seek Office Work

Office bot: This telepresence robot, from Anybots, costs $15,000. Known as the QB, it has built-in obstacle avoidance that automatically prevents it from striking objects such as doorways.
Credit: Anybots


Technology Review - New telepresence robots are being commercialized

Building on the trend toward remote work, two companies started shipping wheeled telepresence robots to customers this year, and other versions are launching soon. While prices are steep and sales tepid, some early adopters find that the robots offer advantages over technologies such as videoconferencing.

Telepresence robots are wheeled machines steered by a person sitting at a remote computer; the bots take the person's place around the conference table or, say, on a facility inspection. They are equipped with cameras, microphones, screens, and speakers so the human controller can interact with real people.

VGo Communications sells a four-foot-tall robot. Some engineers and designers enjoy being able to visit a distant lab or inspect a prototype without leaving the office, he says: "It means they can be there more often. You get the immediacy of walking in the door, and that valuable ad hoc contact." More than 200 of the robots are in use so far, he says, and customers include companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Cisco.



Telepresence robots are a better bet now that that reliable Wi-Fi access has become standard in the workplace. And the 4G cellular data networks being rolled out by carriers will make them even more capable, says Semonite, whose company has been working with Verizon on a version with a built-in 4G connection. "It will make it possible for the robot to work reliably right out of the box, and to go into places like factories or warehouses that don't always have Wi-Fi," he says.

It's not yet clear whether telepresence robots are cost-effective, however. Semonite claims that the $6,000 Vgo can pay for itself just by saving the need for a few business trips. The only competing robot on the market, the much taller QB from the California startup Anybots, might need to replace a few more trips to justify its $15,000 price tag. Yet both robots compare favorably with dedicated videoconferencing rooms, which are sold using similar arguments and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Other companies are preparing to launch telepresence robots aimed at addressing what Colin Angle, cofounder and CEO of iRobot, says is a need for significantly more intelligence. For example, instead of having to steer a robot like a remote-controlled car, he says, a user should be able to ask it to navigate to a particular meeting room, or click on screen to indicate which person to follow or walk alongside.

"The products that have launched so far are really videoconferencing on a remote, driveable platform," says Angle. "It has some appeal, but they don't build a version of you in a remote location able to be as effective as you would in person." His company, which makes the Roomba vacuum cleaner and the military PackBot, is working on a version, dubbed Ava, that he says will solve some of these problems.

The real valuable application they should be focusing in on is quality and compliance work. Many factories need consitent inspection, some of these factories are either hostile (require hard hats) or are remote and time consuming and expensive to travel to. Having a telepresence robots which can visually inspect things, (using IR, telescoping video, or using microscopes) will give companies the ability to conduct inspection from HQ and make more frequent inspections (travel time takes away from work time). These benefits should quickly outweigh the cost of even a $40,000 robot. Keep in mind the articulation of robots in their enviorments is limited so having a hourly worker assit in inspections (holding things turning nobs so on..) is an obvious work around.

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