RoadNarrows puts growth into gear

LOVELAND — Robotics company RoadNarrows has come up with big plans for its artificial intelligence product line this year.

The company focuses on making robots used in research and educational platforms, but is broadening its scope with two new practical robots it plans to complete this year.

“Very few of what we have goes out in what we call ‘the real world,’” RoadNarrows Chief Technology Officer Robin Knight said. “However, we’re changing that.”

One of its new offerings will be a small but heavy-duty vehicle; the other, a robotic arm.

The 1-meter-by-1 ½-meter vehicle can haul as much as 300 pounds and can be programmed to operate alone, though also by a person using an Xbox controller. RoadNarrows is designing it to make trips in rugged terrain, say for use by oil and gas companies to monitor wells on Alaska’s remote North Slope.

The steel robotic vehicle is equipped with infrared cameras that can help detect gas leaks from wells. It would then upload video from either the well site or from a centralized hub so that operators could view them from another location.

With its knobby tires and the likeness of a small tank, the stout vehicle is designed to move agilely from place to place. The robot can be programmed with a computer to perform various tasks, so a variety of industries and government agencies, including police and fire departments, could use it.

“If you lose a robot, you don’t lose a life,” Knight said.

What’s different about the robot is its cost. RoadNarrows aims to develop it for around $50,000, at least a third of the amount similar robots cost.

The company also plans to sell its new robotic arm for light-manufacturing, which could include everything from a factory assembly line to a bakery or brewery. As an example, the arm could pick up and remove items from a conveyer.

Many robotic arms that cost less than $1,000 cannot do meaningful work, Knight said. High-end ones typically cost more than $100,000.

Roadnarrows plans to offer an approximately $5,000 option that is “almost as capable as the high-end arms,” Knight said.

The company is working on an application that would allow people to give commands to the robotic arm. It would function like the Google Talk Android application, an instant messaging service that incorporates voice and text communication.

RoadNarrows makes some of the parts needed to build its robots in its downtown facility, using a 3-D printer that creates components for the robotic arm. It outsources other manufacturing to Colorado companies, as well as overseas.

RoadNarrows sells its educational and research robots to universities nationwide, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology; University of California, Berkeley; the U.S. Air Force Academy and Rice University.

Robots typically are incorporated into the coursework of students studying math and physics. As an example, physics students measure things like force and acceleration of a particular robot.

It’s difficult to imagine those efforts taking place at RoadNarrows’ brick headquarters, an older building located next to a bar and tattoo parlor in downtown Loveland.

Established in 2002, RoadNarrows today employs 11 people, including mechanical, electrical and software engineers as well as mathematicians and physicists.

The company recently expanded its space on Fifth Street in Loveland by 1,100 square feet as it celebrated its 10th anniversary.

Knight, who moved here for a job with AT&T, chose the Loveland area because he wanted to live in a scenic Western town.

The city of Loveland gave RoadNarrows an $18,000 incentive package to stay downtown when the company moved to its current location on Fifth Street from its original location nearby.

RoadNarrows has grown an average 20 percent annually, CEO Kim Wheeler said. The company expects more than 20-percent growth this year.

“If they’re a success … we’ll probably be in the high-end of double digits at the least,” Knight said. “If they’re not, we’ll just be limping along at 20 percent.”

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