As with other technologies, robotics could be more widely adopted when hardware is commoditized and software development is standardized, say some industry experts. One barrier to growth is robot operations, according to Florian Pestoni, co-founder and CEO of InOrbit Inc., which offers cloud-based robotics services.
The Robot Operating System (ROS) offers a good starting point for developers, he told The Robot Report, but as the software stack grows, so too should services to let companies focus on their specific value-added applications. InOrbit’s Mission Control is designed to help companies develop, deploy, and operate robots.
Identifying the need for central robot operations
“My co-founder [InOrbit Chief Technology Officer Julian Cerruti], was in robotics for about a decade,” Pestoni said. “He was at Willow Garage, Savioke, and Clearpath, and he realized that he had ended up building more or less the same robot over and over.”
“My background was as a software engineer,” he recalled. “I took the product route at Microsoft and Facebook.” Pestoni is also the organizer of the Robot Operations Working Group.
“We talked with a couple-dozen people, and we heard the story that robot operations is critical but not core to their business,” he said. “The CEO of one company that has hundreds of robots in the field said, ‘I’ll just cobble together a bunch of tools,’ not what you want to hear from someone who’s moving thousands of pounds around.”
Serving RaaS providers
“Our initial market has been robotics developers — a lot are Robotics-as-a-Service [RaaS] operators,” Pestoni said. “We describe what we do as ‘RobOps — DevOps for robotics’ because we have both sides. Our main focus has been robot operations at scale.”
“As the market matures, we had the hypothesis that service providers and integrators that aggregate or source robots from vendors to provide a service at scale would soon emerge,” he added. “We’re now in conversations with several companies that are pursuing this level of RaaS, which we expect will become more prevalent by 2020 or 2021.”
“We can work with robot operations and provide a ‘single pane of glass’ — one platform to perform orchestration of heterogeneous robots.”
“A lot of companies want to follow that approach, such as Fellow Robotics,” explained Pestoni. “They say, ‘Monitor for us,’ and we’ll have another monitor for other guys that are siloed. In warehouses, people are using WMSes [warehouse management systems] to pull these things together, but that’s a terrible idea. They were not designed to do that.”
“Another thing is that this is not just robots, but also people,” he noted. “The evolution is not just RaaS, but also inventory and other things as a service, which will require different best-of-breed robots.”
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Building on ROS
“On the software side today, we have an agent that runs on the robot and is robot-agnostic,” said Pestoni. “If it’s running on ROS, we can instantly do a lot with it. We can get real-time data on service discovery or defaults within a minute of setup.”
“We’re working with three very large robot operators/providers that are growing the number of robots in the field by 10x,” he said. “One has hundreds of robots in retail. Autonomy is relative — there could be an obstacle or a false positive from a [lidar] reflection. A robot could get stuck and has to wait for a human staffer to get it unstuck.”
“We’ve demonstrated that someone on the East Coast can be notified in real time when an incident occurs on the West Coast,” Pestoni said. “They could connect to the robot instantly and connect to a map. In our user interface, there’s a button for actions that are specific to certain circumstances, so there could be a one-click resolution.”
Rise of the ‘roboteer’
With InOrbit’s tools and access to RaaS over a Web-based interface, robot operations can be managed on a one-to-many basis. “The idea of a roboteer is a huge job for the future, with people responsible for the health and operations of dozens or hundreds of robots,” said Pestoni. “The tools we’re building will help enable that.”
“The beauty of the cloud is that troubleshooting can be done in a central operations center or by a retail staffer by phone,” he said. “In the example, the staffer could send the robot a command through InOrbit to go around an obstacle. The goal is to get it moving as quickly as possible, and reducing mean time to resolution and increasing utilization rates.”
“It will be a while before autonomy reduces the need for human involvement altogether,” asserted Pestoni.
Striving for safe robot operations
“We feel very strongly about security and safety at InOrbit,” Pestoni said. “Some of the gaps we’ve seen in robot operations are pretty big. For instance, it’s pretty prevalent in industry to give a nontechnical operator a console to the robot, and they cut and paste commands from a Word document and press Enter.”
“A lot of workers use the same passwords for heavy machinery that operates around people,” he said. “My concern is that it may take only one snafu where somebody gets hurt or there’s a loss of property to hurt everyone in the robotics industry.”
“We’re trying to bring a level of consistency and security to our software out of the box,” said Pestoni. “All data exchange is encrypted. We don’t require a VPN because it’s hard to do with inbound deployment. We also make it so that you can give different people in the company different levels of control in the robot operations center.”
“We use a cloud and SaaS [software-as-a-service] model, but we keep data for each customer separate cryptographically,” he said. “That’s a best practice in the cloud, but in robotics, it’s like the Wild West right now.”
InOrbit is moving from proof of concept to commercial discussions with companies and expects signed contracts within the next month or so, said Pestoni.
“We’ve completed three proofs of concept with large robot operators,” he said. “Some industries, such as logistics and retail, are more mature than others, like agriculture and construction, but there’s huge potential to impact society with robotics.”
“One of our customers, Iron Ox, is the first fully automated farm,” added Pestoni. “It’s focusing on leafy greens and fully controls yield and quality. It could be the future of food.”