Ease of use is a key factor in getting new industries and small and medium-sized companies to adopt automation. Robotics companies are doing a much better job keeping end users in mind when designing products, but for too long that was not the case. Fetch Robotics, Ready Robotics and Waypoint Robotics, among many others, come to mind as companies building their brands around ease of use.
Southie Autonomy, albeit lesser known, is another company worth watching. The Boston, Mass.-based startup and MassRobotics resident recently came out of stealth mode. Founded by two former Draper Laboratory employees in 2017, Southie is developing intelligent robot software called “The Wand” that lets users tell robots what to do by using gesture and voice commands. Southie claims no computer skills are required to be able to use The Wand.
How The Wand Works
The Wand uses a hand-held pointer and a patent-pending platform that combines artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) to remove the complex programming, which most companies that need automation lack in-house, required to set up their robotic workflows.
Watch the videos to see The Wand in action. The video above shows the current set-up in the MassRobotics office. As you’ll see, The Wand is using an arm from Universal Robots and is a bit further developed with voice command capability. The video below is off an earlier prototype from October 2017.
The AR interface uses a projector, which is supplied to users, that displays a menu onto the workspace. In the demo below, for example, the user selects the “Pick” button and uses The Wand to show the robot which object to pick up. The Wand is then used to select the “Place” button and tap the desired location for the item to be placed. The final step is to hit the “Execute” button before the ABB YuMi gets to work. The Wand’s software comes pre-loaded with a workflow.
Southie co-founder Rahul Chipalkatty says a robot that uses The Wand only has a general understanding of the task at hand. “In a kitting workflow, for example, the robot knows it needs to put something in a box in some sort of configuration. You show, with The Wand, where the set of objects is and where they need to go. That gives the robot its goal and constraints. Then, using AI, the robot reasons about how to complete the task, collision-free and precise to 0.5 cm placement. We generalize the task, and the robot figures out the rest.”
Chipalkatty and co-founder Jay Wong published 3D vision papers while working at Draper that helped lead them down this path. “We wrap everything into a full-stack system,” Chipalkatty says. “Everything from the human-robot interface to task planning to motion planning and 3D perception is wrapped into a bundle that’s accessible to people.”
Southie Autonomy’s Target Market, Business Model
Southie’s initial market focus is kitting as it is a large, growing market in which e-commerce and mass-customization are high-growth drivers. Some of the potential kitting applications its having conversations about include direct-to-consumer medical tests, pre-production custom kits for automotive, pre-packaged procedural trays for use in large hospitals, and personalized consumer packaged goods are examples. The system will be robot-agnostic and, in the future, will be able to carry out more sophisticated workflows.
“In order to lower cost and skills requirements, which will lead to greater cobot adoption, both setup and infrastructure overhead need to be greatly reduced,” says Andie Zhang, Global Robotics Product Manager for Collaborative Robots, ABB. “Overall productivity will be improved for today’s forward thinkers when they implement flexible systems that involve humans and robots collaborating together.”
The plan is to offer The Wand through an annual subscription model for $25,000 per robot. Chipalkatty says that will include vision/AR/AI hardware and pre-loaded workflow software for one application.
“This model allows for customers to expand the suite of workflows and use-cases to automate. We are targeting the total cost of the system (with cobot) at about $50,000. enabling one-year ROI.”
Southie is currently selling directly to customers. If all goes well, it will turn to systems integrators.
How Southie Autonomy was Founded
While working at Draper on mobile manipulation applications for the Department of Defense, Chipalkatty and Wong saw a gap in how people interact with robots. “People won’t use robots if they don’t fully understand them. One way to solve that gap is to create communication between the two. We call them autonomous, but no system is really autonomous. There’s always a person in charge, somewhere. If that person isn’t happy or satisfied with the performance, then they won’t use the robot.”
Chipalkatty and Wong wanted to make robots smarter and easier to use. After impressing ABB with a prototype in August 2015, they were given a YuMi a year later. Chipalkatty left Draper in October 2017, and Wong came aboard full-time two months later. Southie currently has six full-time employees and has raised $130,000 from family, friends and startup competitions.
“The value proposition is flexibility and simplicity. Typically a company needs a large volume of products to run through to justify the initial cost of a robot,” says Chipalkatty. “But if anyone can deploy a robot, and it only takes a few minutes to deploy it, now you can start hitting lower volume, smaller batch applications.”
Southie believes in the technology acceptance model (TAM): utility and ease of use leads to ubiquity. Chipalkatty says all the key drivers for ubiquity are there for robotics, but what’s missing are ease of use and accessibility.
“The interaction between humans and robots needs to be different,” says Chipalkatty. “You and I communicate tasks in a different way and do so efficiently by showing, touching and speaking. Robots can get there, too. And that will drive adoption, much like iOS did for iPhones.”