Service robots are personal robots that
work autonomously around humans and exclude manufacturing
applications. Traditionally, these robots performed only
limited, repetitive functions such as vacuuming, mowing the
lawn or cleaning the pool. Other tasks which required robots
to move around or interact autonomously with their environment
were difficult. Previously, if a walking robot approached a
log in its path, it was a tremendous obstacle and the robot
would often trip itself up. Even basic tasks like
distinguishing a table from a desk were nearly impossible.
However, as technology platforms have evolved, the robotics
quest, which was once abandoned as science fiction, is
becoming a reality. Today's scientists and engineers are
realistically approaching a world in which cars drive
themselves, robots recognize human emotions, and a machine can
care for an elderly person that would otherwise be confined to
a nursing home. Consumer robotics is a $1.6 billion industry
and is expected to advance rapidly in the upcoming years with
innovation as the driving force. Federal and state R&D tax
credits are available to shoulder the costs of these novel
The Research &
Development Tax Credit
Enacted in 1981, the federal Research and
Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13
percent of eligible spending for new and improved products and
processes. Qualified research must meet the following four
New or improved products,
processes, or software
Technological in nature
Elimination of uncertainty
Process of experimentation
Eligible costs include employee wages, cost
of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and
costs associated with developing a patent. On January 2, 2013,
President Obama signed the bill extending the R&D Tax
Credit for 2012 and 2013 tax years. A similar extension is
expected for 2014.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects
Agency (DARPA) robotics challenge, motivated by disasters such
as the Fukushima Daiichi hydrogen explosion and the Deepwater
Horizon underwater oil spill, is a competition sponsored by
the Department of Defense to promote innovation in robotics
technology. MIT is collaborating with Boston Dynamics in the
DRC to create a dexterous, mobile robot that can navigate
through disaster zones to aid in rescue efforts with minimal
assistance from operator controls. The duo is competing with
other academic and industrial teams to build the robot so it
can walk over uneven terrain, climb stairs, handle debris, and
effectively use hand tools. These various skills are being
tested in three challenges: June 2012, Dec 2013, and mid 2015.
The MIT collaboration team qualified their robot for the
second round by commanding it to climb a ladder, manipulate a
hose, and turn valves. The robot does this partially
autonomously. Human controllers make large decisions for the
robot such as which objects to pick up, while the robot makes
less important decisions like how many steps to take. Round
two which took place in a natural outdoor environment was a
bit more challenging. Team Schaft, representing a Tokyo
spinoff company acquired by Google, took first place, Carnegie
Mellon Institute placed third, and MIT placed fourth. The
tasks which included picking up debris and moving swiftly
through cluttered environments served as a reality check for
many spectators. Although the humanoids were generally able to
complete the tasks, their agility was still rather deliberate
and slow; and most significant decisions where still
controlled by operators. However, for the next round in mid
2015, MIT intends to further push its robots autonomy;
allowing it to make a decision to pick up a hose or open a
door on its own and complete more difficult tasks like picking
up several objects from a table and dropping them in a bucket
-- all in response to a simple "go" command. The robots are
also expected to stand upright without a tether and pick
themselves up if they fall. This is all part of the quest to
create practical, multifunctional robots that can operate in
ways that their predecessors could not.
Figure 1: MIT Robot practicing before DARPA
Figure 2: Link to video of Google’s robot winning the
The obstacles that once tripped up
robots and stunted the robotics industry are slowly being
overcome. As technology advances, scientists are increasingly
developing ways in which robots can learn on their own. Adept
Technology, headquartered in California, has developed a robot
that can sense an object which has been dropped in its path,
plot a course around it, and communicate the change to other
robots in its fleet. The University of Birmingham in the U.K.
has developed a way to teach robots how to adjust their grip
to handle unfamiliar objects of varying size and texture.
Traditionally, a robot needed to be taught a certain grip for
each product; and if it encountered a product that it had not
previously gripped, it would apply an arbitrary grip, often
damaging the product. Technology has now evolved to enable the
robot to make a judgment based on a previous grip that worked
well for a similar product. This technology is crucial if
robots are going to be practical in dynamic settings.
Modern robots must be designed to operate
in a constantly changing environment. They must use maps,
chart paths, and avoid obstacles that have been randomly
placed in their path. Intelligent navigation will empower
robots to assess their ever changing environments and react
quickly. The Roomba has been leading the way with this
technology since 2002.
The Roomba is a
self-operating home vacuum machine that can weave around
tables or chairs, as well as stop and turn itself before
falling down a flight of stairs. It does this by sending out
infrared sensors which it expects to immediately bounce back.
It then calculates the distance of the object in front of it
based on the length of time it took for the rays to bounce
back or in the case of stairs, by where the sensors dropped
off. Other sensors allow it to follow walls closely without
touching them, moving along and picking up debris as it goes.
The vacuum even plugs itself in for a recharge when the
battery gets low.
Newer models like
the Roomba 880 remove 50 percent more debris and contain
tangle-free extractors which are virtually maintenance free.
This technology, which uses angled rollers to increase suction
power by 500 percent, replaced the conventional bristle
brushes which have been around for over one hundred years. In
addition, if any debris remains the robot has the ability to
sense what it didn't pick up the first time using a persistent
'pass cleaning' method which employs a back-and-forth cleaning
pattern to apply elbow grease in areas where it senses
excessive dirt. In order to hold the extra debris, the bin is
60 percent larger than the previous model.
But that's not all.
The latest battery technology delivers twice as many cleaning
cycles as the previous Roomba battery, doubling the time
needed before a recharge. This allows consumers the
convenience of having the robot do all the tasks related to
vacuuming while they are at school, work or attending other
matters. And more people are getting comfortable with this
idea as well. Figure 3 below shows iRobot's home robot
revenues consistently increasing. The revenue increase
demonstrates how home robots are paving the way for a broader
range of service bot offerings, many involving tasks that are
too dirty, dangerous and difficult for people.
& Hazardous Waste Robots
organizations use robots to detect, identify, and dispose of
dangerous materials and bombs. The iRobot 510 PackBot, which
can be carried in a backpack is capable of climbing stairs,
navigating narrow passages, handling HazMat materials, and
disposing of bombs.
Research institutions are now developing
smart underwater robots. The global underwater robotics market
has been experiencing emergence as a result. Key vendors
dominating this marketplace include Atlas Maridan Aps in
Horsholm, Denmark, Bluefin Robotics Corp. in Quincy, MA, and
Deep Ocean Engineering Inc. in San Jose CA. These industry
leaders are creating robots that are particularly useful for
underground construction of bridges and pipelines, exploration
of natural resources, dredging/excavation, and environmental
The agricultural robotics market is an $817
million industry which is anticipated to reach $16.3 billion
by 2020. With the global population expected to reach nine
billion by 2050, many researchers estimate that the efficiency
of agricultural production must increase by 25 percent to meet
the demand. Self-guided tractors and harvesters are already
commercially available to advance the effort. More recently,
farmers have begun to experiment with autonomous systems that
automate operations such as pruning, thinning, spraying, and
weed removal. Distributors are making use of automation as
The Harvey Robot
In response to work shortages and quick
turnover, Harvest Automation in Ballercia, MA has built a
robot that moves plants around nurseries and greenhouses to
cover the strenuous work that humans would normally do. The
user tells Harvey which size pot to look for and the robot
detects it using sensors. It then spaces the pots according to
the guidelines set by the user. The robot costs about $30,000
but pays for itself after about 18 months, since an equivalent
human laborer costs about $20,000/year.
Google's recent acquisitions of at least
eight different robotics companies have been the subject of
much speculation lately. The innovative giant has placed large
bets on the future of robotics by acquiring the following
Boston Dynamics Inc.
Industrial Perception Inc.
Redwood Robotics Corp.
Bott & Dolly
Google has been very quiet about what it
intends to with its robotics acquisitions but one thing is
clear: if Google is interested in it, it's likely to be big.
The media has shown much interest by intensively covering the
issue, especially the Boston Dynamics acquisition of 2013.
With this, Google acquired a line of the most innovative bots
in the world including the BigDog, LS3, Cheetah, and Wildcat.
describes this robot as "The Most Advanced Rough-Terrain Robot
on Earth". BigDog runs at 4 mph, climbs slopes up to 35
degrees, walks across rubble, climbs muddy hiking trails,
walks in snow and water, and carries a 340 pound load. The
rough-terrain robot is powered by an engine that drives a
hydraulic actuation system. It is designed largely for
carrying military supplies through environments were wheels
cannot traverse. The following video demonstrates the agility
of the big dog as it traverses rigid terrain and regains its
footing on the ice:
The LS3 is a similar
military robot that carries up to a 400 pound load. This robot
carries enough fuel for a 24 hour mission and can roll itself
back upright if it is knocked on its side. The team developing
the LS3 includes engineers and scientists from Boston Dynamics
and Carnegie Mellon University, one of the world's leading
experts in robotics research.
The Cheetah, reaching
speeds of 29 mph, is the fastest legged robot in the world. It
is still largely in the R&D phase as it runs only on the
treadmill but scientists are designing a prototype, the
WildCat, which will operate at similar speeds outdoors and
untethered. These robots are all part of Google's company
culture which "encourages experimentation and the free flow of
ideas". The emerging industry giant "encourage[s] people to
think big and aim for breakthroughs instead of incremental
improvements." Google describes this as "moonshot research".
iRobot Ava 500: Telepresence Robots
The Ava 500 by iRobot is an autonomous
robot that self-navigates its way to a desired location in
order to film live video chats. This feature allows users to
move about the room, participate in discussions, or work from
home while the telepresence robot navigates its way to a board
meeting or business seminar. When the meeting is over, the
robot self-navigates its way back to its charging station.
"A better robot lives in our world by
moving around its environment more intelligently, by
cooperating with the people it serves more compellingly and by
physically interacting with its surroundings more effectively"
(i-Robot) Engineers believe that robots will become maids,
caregivers, and even therapists. However, in order to co-exist
with humans they must be able to function in a world where
light switches, doors, and levers are designed for humans.
Still, people will not buy them unless they feel comfortable
around them as well.
When someone hands
you a sharp object you can read intention in their eyes, face,
and body language. The same is not true of a robot. However,
if robots have facial expressions people will be able to read
what is coming. Designing robots that will nod when
instructions are clear or communicate a puzzled look when they
aren't will make consumers confident in dealing with them.
Scientists want to build robots that have physiological
reactions such as sweating when they are nervous or
goose-bumps when scared. The human-like tendencies will help
put elderly people at ease, as many engineers expect the
robots to help meet the surging demand for elderly care.
approach old-age, caring for the elderly will be an enormous
undertaking. Most robots designed for this task will supervise
elderly, remind them to take their medication, and provide
companionship. The robots will use innovative vision systems
to collect data about their environment, storing information,
and rescanning at a later date, searching for changes in the
environment. If the robot recognizes a change it will make a
decision using the results. For, instance a robot would be
able to call for help if it recognized a fire, or that a
person had fallen to the ground.
Romeo, a five foot
humanoid robot from Aldebaran, the French manufacturer, can
open doors, climbs steps, and reminds seniors to call their
doctor. At Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute,
scientists have developed a series of 'CoBots' which are
designed to interact with and rely on humans. The bots deliver
the mail, guide visitors to appointments, and fetch coffee.
But they cannot operate elevators and are designed to stop and
ask humans for assistance. If they get lost they pull up a map
of the building on their computer and interrupt a human
saying, "I am lost, can you tell me where I am?" This
co-dependency is all part of the plan since humans feel at
ease interacting with less than perfect robots. The difference
between the 'CoBots' and their industrial ancestors is in
their design. Factory robots have 'stiff actuators' which are
capable of high speed and exact precision. The new humanoid
robots have 'compliant actuators' which respond more naturally
and have the ability to yield or adjust quickly. The key to
this 'soft robotics' is in the elastic between the motor and
the joint which allows the robot to apply appropriate force
using sensors to strike the right balance between speed,
force, and precision. viv Carnegie Mellon has also developed a
humanoid named Victor, who plays scrabble and sports a
human-like appearance on his flat screen face. While he is
winning, he boasts and brags but when losing he throws
insults. Designers purposefully created him with limitations
in order to make him seem more human-like. His personality is
insecure and he plays with only a limited range of words
pulled from the adventure of Sherlock Holmes book.
University Service Bot
At the Quality of Life Technology Center,
Carnegie Mellon is teaming up with the University of
Pittsburgh to bring together a cross-disciplinary team of
technologists, clinicians, industry partners, end users and
other stakeholders to create revolutionary technologies that
will improve the quality of life for all people. The vision is
to develop intelligent systems that enhance the body and mind.
The goal is to create robots that monitor and communicate with
people to understand their needs and react the way humans do.
QoLT Research emphasizes human-system interaction with
attention to social, clinical and policy factors for consumer
deployment and user adoption.
Researchers at MIT have a similar vision to
develop innovative methods for enabling fluid human-robot
collaboration. Their vision is to harness relative strengths
of humans and robots to accomplish what neither can do alone.
Some specific projects at the University include teaching
robots how to understand humans' needs and how to fulfill them
by interactively learning from them by picking up on cues from
humans which communicate approval or disapproval to the robot.
This research on interactive learning focuses on algorithms
that translate the approval and disapproval in various
settings to an appropriate response from the robot. Scientists
want to create robots that are 3d printable as well.
3D Printing and Robotics
MIT researchers are working on robots that
can be designed using 3D printers and then baked into working
robots. The consumer would decide that they want a robot that
will 'play with my cat' or 'clean the floor' and "from this
high-level specification, you actually generate a working
device.", says Daniela Rus professor of Electrical Engineering
and Computer Science at MIT. While their work is still in the
preliminary stage, it is built on previous research conducted
by Rus and her MIT colleagues that researchers expect will
make these long-shot ideas into practical reality.
In 2010, Google introduced the term "cloud
robotics" to describe a way of using the internet to enhance
robot capabilities by allowing collaboration among robots,
smart objects, and even humans. This helps robots by allowing
them to access a wealth of additional resources and
information developed by computers, other robots, and humans.
Google is already using this technology to communicate changes
in the environment between its fleet of self-driving cars
which have already logged over 700,000 miles without an
As consumers become more comfortable
interacting with robots the industry will continue to emerge.
Innovation through R&D will continue to drive the effort.
Designers will further develop products such as the roomba,
the Harvey robot, and the Ava 500. As they continue their
efforts they should be aware of State and Federal R&D tax
credits which are available to help shoulder the costs of