Technology  October 8, 2010

Federal initiative provides boom for ‘bot makers

LOVELAND – It’s not quite a Star Wars droid factory, but the downtown Loveland office of RoadNarrows is littered with various robots and related parts. There is a zoo of suped-up robotic toys with oversized feet and cameras for heads, automated arms that can be outfitted with an array of different devices, and a relative of the Roomba, the self-propelled vacuum, this one equipped with remote-sensing equipment to make three-dimensional maps.

Consider the space a workshop for turning relatively simple, automated gadgets into empowered robots that the staff of RoadNarrows hopes will lead a new era of education and research. Eight years after opening, the company is at the onset of a growth stage.

The firm has recently hired five new staff members to help with research and development and strategic planning, fed by a government push toward greater and more in-depth science education. In the last year, RoadNarrows moved into its current office, helped in part by a grant from the city.

The momentum for robotics companies has grown out of the education agenda of President Obama, who announced a November 2009 initiative to prioritize science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning in American schools. The push is a response to students’ declining performance in those fields, compared with other countries. The government has dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars for the initiative and leveraged a similar financial commitment from companies, like Intel, and charitable foundations.

The niche – and funding – has attracted and nourished robotics and engineering firms, such as RoadNarrows, which has worked with academic entities in order to get robotics into classrooms and beyond.

Leading-edge entrepreneurs

RoadNarrows founders Kim Wheeler and Robin Knight formed the company as refugees from the corporate telecommunications world.

“We decided to get out of corporate (life) and into leading-edge technology,” Wheeler said. “And we saw robotics and intelligence systems were emerging and really exciting.”

Research labs at universities had typically shouldered the work of advancing capabilities of robotics, but Wheeler and Knight believed a small tech firm could jump into the field and bring corporate experience from large engineering projects to push some boundaries.

The company began creating a domestic market for bots manufactured in Asia – where automated devices are more popular as novelties, hobbies and even pets – and developing add-on products and software to expand their capabilities. Through working agreements with manufacturers, RoadNarrows has created components that embed intelligence: Robots that could previously just lumber across a space are enabled with advanced mobility and greater balance, voice and image recognition, and the abilities to touch, grasp and hold items.

University equipment funds and research grants have allowed labs to bring the creations into college classrooms. RoadNarrows now counts 200 customers, mostly research labs at U.S. and international universities and some private tech companies. At schools such as the University of Colorado in Boulder, students are given the tools and then they help develop curriculum based around computer science, engineering and artificial intelligence.

A major boost for RoadNarrows has come from federal support through the National Science Foundation. The company has received both Phase I and Phase II Small Business Innovation Research grants from the NSF, for a total of $600,000 in government grants. Part of that has gone toward the creation of Hekateros, a robotic arm, or manipulator, being developed to provide sophisticated and intelligent design and capabilities at a relatively affordable price.

Knight explained that manipulators fall into two categories: Hobby devices with limited potential costing about $800 and very sophisticated tools that sell for roughly $10,000 to industrial clients. Hekateros could fill the gap as a high-quality manipulator based on less expensive models but equipped with a small Linux computer that expands its intelligence. Knight said the product could retail for around $3,500, which would make it affordable and useful for universities and other customers.

A prototype that can easily fit on a typical desk allows operators to change the devices at the end of the arm to perform different functions, such as grabbing and grasping, operating with a camera, or making full rotations, a tricky feat for manipulators. RoadNarrows plans to release a first generation of Hekateros devices this fall to select customers.

Range of applications

The NSF grants are meant to help small companies, such as RoadNarrows, explore “cutting-edge, high-risk, high-quality” projects, like Hekateros, which could benefit educational research and have applied purposes. The company’s robots, add-ons and software could have a range of applications from education and research to light manufacturing and industrial uses and entertainment and home use, according to Knight. He added that RoadNarrows has worked with an open interface for its products (when its partners allow) to encourage more development.

“The size of RoadNarrows is particularly important as it can cater to the niche of research robotics,´ said Nikolaus Correll, a computer science professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has worked with the company on software and hands-on learning packages. In turn, RoadNarrows is assisting Correll’s lab with development and maintenance.

The company is applying for more funding through NSF, but its staff is aware that financial sufficiency and viability will be tied to the success of its products in the marketplace.

For now, Knight and Wheeler said the company hopes to maintain its mix of products and customers, and they are not shy about talking about a more automated future where bots are not just novelties and self-propelled home appliances. With the increase in computing and processing power and the development of nanotechnology, robotics stands on the verge of a boom, they said, similar to the upsurge of smartphones and the related applications still evolving.

LOVELAND – It’s not quite a Star Wars droid factory, but the downtown Loveland office of RoadNarrows is littered with various robots and related parts. There is a zoo of suped-up robotic toys with oversized feet and cameras for heads, automated arms that can be outfitted with an array of different devices, and a relative of the Roomba, the self-propelled vacuum, this one equipped with remote-sensing equipment to make three-dimensional maps.

Consider the space a workshop for turning relatively simple, automated gadgets into empowered robots that the staff of RoadNarrows hopes will lead a new era of…

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