Freedom Robotics Inc., which has been developing a cloud-based infrastructure for managing fleets of robots, has released teleoperation and resource monitoring tools. With humans “in the loop,” companies can adopt, deploy, and manage automation more easily and quickly, said the company.
San Francisco-based Freedom Robotics secured $6.6 million in seed funding in July 2019. More recently, it released Freedom Pilot, a remote teleoperation tool, and it announced the Freedom Resource Monitor tool.
Steve Hansen, head of robotics at the company, and Hans Lee, chief technology officer (CTO) at Freedom Robotics, recently spoke with The Robot Report about Freedom Pilot, running a startup, and how the novel coronavirus has encouraged developers to rush robots to market.
Developing Freedom Pilot
“I used to work in industrial automation and manufacturing, but I was more interested in dynamic path planning, machine learning, and adaptive robots,” Hansen said. “I studied at Berkeley and met with a lot of CTOs and co-founders. We saw a pattern: The really successful robotics companies don’t just design robots; they also design products to solve business problems.”
“Freedom Pilot is teleoperation and remote-intervention software that installs in robots with one line of code in five minutes or less,” said Hansen. “It can be used right away. Businesses can try it out online.”
“Our philosophy is iterative development,” he added. “We’re not getting hung up on better SLAM [simultaneous localization and mapping]. We have to stay focused on the customer and make sure our tools are applicable to horizontal use cases.”
“Not every robot needs full teleoperation. It’s one tool for roboticists to use,” said Lee. “There’s a full spectrum between AMRs [autonomous mobile robots] and autonomous vehicles. On one end, with a fairly constrained environment, you can still get some vision faults when a person steps in front of a robot, and it faulted out and doesn’t know what to do.”
“Freedom Pilot allows customers to log in, press a command such as injecting a ROS [Robot Operating System] topic or Python, and tell it to stop,” he said. “It’s more reliable, and we use humans as a part of the process.”
ROS and RaaS
“ROS may not be exciting, but it’s how people are getting things done,” said Hansen about robotics developers. “Pilot and Freedom Robotics’ suite of tools work out of the box on ROS and non-ROS systems. The APIs [application programming interfaces] for Python through Linux are all openly documented.”
“Users can click on an individual device and see a streaming view of topics and information coming off the robot,” he said during a demonstration in which a Universal Robots arm waved and picked up cup of coffee. “It can run parts for a CNC machine and switch to a new application.”
“A remote operator could send a new command to a robot running a path where it would hit a wall,” Hansen said. “They could clear the path and reset the robot without having to go onsite.”
“As robotics companies move to robotics-as-a-service [RaaS] models, if people still have to fix problems on site and babysit the systems, the value diminishes,” he said. “Instead, by shipping a suite of tools, if there’s a problem, Freedom Pilot gets an alert, and someone can then log in. This equals a higher service level and value proposition.”
Hansen and Lee shared a demonstration of Fetch Robotics AMRs in which robots were managed in groups. “Freedom Pilot can support multiple cameras, lidar, GPS, and t can communicate pixel coordinates, from shelving to apple picking,” said Lee. “It provides the piping, so that robotics developers can determine how to do interventions. Simple commands are table stakes; users need to see transformations in real time.”
Applications and accelerated demand
Freedom Robotics said its products are used in agriculture, retail, hospitals, and last-mile delivery. “We have had a lot of growth and success with our customers leveraging our Pilot feature to take care of a lot of the software development they would’ve needed months to do in-house,” Hansen said. “This has enabled them to cut down the time to deploy robots from months to weeks.”
“In agriculture, labor shortages from limited border crossings, especially in Europe, have left fruits and vegetables rotting in the field,” Lee said. “A robot may have a moderate of autonomy to navigate between rows, and a farm worker could tell it where to pick.”
“In retail, robots can get lost in crowded environments. An operator can log into Freedom Pilot from anywhere in the world and relocalize it,” he explained. “People who had more elaborate automation plans are now looking to ship robots quicker, with human backstops and development tools. We’re generating data sets in real time to automate the process later.”
“We had Invento, a customer in India that leveraged Pilot to launch a brand-new robot to disinfect hospitals with UVC,” Hansen said. “This was only an idea at the beginning of COVID-19. It definitely wasn’t a robot 45 days ago, and now they’re in hospitals in India and the U.S.”
“Chair legs are difficult for path planning to work around, but we could develop a detector and plan in a data-driven way rather than trying to solve everything ahead of time,” he said. “Such customers can use Freedom for fleets later.”
“Commercial cleaning robots were thought of as labor augmentation, but with COVID and teleoperation, the idea of robots for dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks is extended to everyday life,” Hansen said. “Remote intervention tools will build up autonomy over time.”
“For sidewalk robots, people tried to handle all corner cases, so the amount of sensors and complex algorithms affected the cost of the robots,” said Lee. “With the spike in demand, roboticists have had to become product people. We have to focus on what we can do now.”
“Freedom Pilot is not just applicable to startups or hobbyists,” said Lee. “It’s also useful in larger enterprises, such as automotive manufacturing and logistics, where human intervention still has a role in reducing the percentage of errors.”
Startups and scaling with Freedom Pilot, Resource Monitor
“We’re really confident about the industry and are seeing companies grow in scale,” said Lee. “COVID-19 accelerated robotics development by five years. We’re working with customers across a broad range of verticals to help ship, deploy, and scale robots.”
“Before, many companies didn’t get past prototypes,” he said. “Now, complex algorithms are ditched in favor of shipping robots faster with using humans as a remote backstop. For example, CyanBot deployed 10 robots for deliveries in the first month without writing any Web infrastructure code.”
“We’ve been using our software during the pandemic, since we don’t have direct access to our robots,” he said. “We’ve been affected by shelter-in-place orders, as have our customers. I was able to map and configure a robot without going into the office. We could then do all the software things remotely.”
Freedom Pilot is now available for free trials for one year for one robot, with tiered pricing beyond that level.
Freedom Robotics is hiring and is getting feedback from customers “across thousands of hours,” said Lee. “We’re excited about the maturing of the robotics industry as a whole and the accelerated timelines for robotics and rational development,” he said.