With an attention-grabbing headline last week on Robohub, Edward Snowden BEAMed into a TED Talk. With much less fanfare, this writer participated in a panel in Lyon, France while I was in Stuttgart, Germany, also using a BEAM.
But are BEAMs robots? The international standards group suggests that robots must sense, process that data and produce an action, be reprogrammable, and act in at least 2 dimensions. BEAMS perform no autonomous activities. They don’t have a collision avoidance system or a navigation system to drive from point A to B. They are remotely driven by a human operator on his laptop or computer. The BEAM operating system isn’t available for modification by users therefor it is not programmable, much less reprogrammable. Consequently BEAMS are remote telepresence devices, but not robots.
In the Robohub article, many mentions of the BEAM were preceded or followed by the word robot or robotic. There were discussions about laws and robotics. This is not an uncommon practice. But as times change, wording becomes more important and it is important to understand that, although roboticists have participated in the design and building of the BEAM, the BEAM itself is not robotic.
The truth about BEAM is that some telepresence devices are providing functional solutions to people that have a need to be one place when they are somewhere else. Suitable Technologies, the company that designed, builds and markets the BEAM, has found a niche for their device. They will probably have similar success with their new BEAM+, a scaled down, less professional, low-cost BEAM meant for home use.
Many other telepresence companies haven't found their market just yet and are either regrouping or folding.
An example of the former – and also of the ingenuity of their whole team – is CtrlWorks, a Singapore-based start-up funded by the Singapore government and spun off from the local university. CtrlWorks designed and built a slick autonomous navigating, automatic recharging, HD video conferencing telepresence device they named Puppet. Try as they may, they weren't able to sell many. But they did find interest in their nav system methods and use of the Cloud for processing – which they attempted to provide for the wheelchair market. But as they were working on that solution, prospective clients were suggesting that they redo their navigation and communication system to provide towing and deliver services vehicles for large facilities that need that type of service. The local airport, for example, received food tray carts offloaded from planes and those carts needed to be moved around the airport for cleaning, unloading, reloading and relocation. A perfect app for an autonomous self-navigating mobile device with enough power to tow lightweight loads. One added advantage was that the airport already used expensive AGVs for baggage handling and understood what they needed and what CtrlWorks could provide. Consequently CtrlWorks modularized their work-to-date and now sell their new Axon system in modules: a sensor mast with LIDAR, cameras and wireless communication, and a drive unit and tow system with wheels, motors and batteries. Scrappy! We wish them well.