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Linux-based mobile manipulation robots due soon

Feb 11, 2015 — by Eric Brown — 1,452 views

Former Unbounded Robotics execs have launched “Fetch Robotics” with $3 million in funding, and will ship a ROS-on-Linux mobile manipulator bot in Q2 2015.

A startup called Fetch Robotics has announced $3 million in Series A financing from O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures (OATV) and Shasta Ventures, along with a development team that jumped from the apparently now defunct Unbounded Robotics. Fetch Robotics plans to announce and ship two mobile manipulation robots in the second quarter that are aimed principally at the logistics and light industrial markets, “as well as for other human-robot collaboration opportunities,” says the company.

Unbounded Robotics seemed like it was groomed for success when it unveiled its Linux and Robot Operating System (ROS) based UBR-1 mobile manipulation robot in Oct. 2013. The dexterous, one-armed robot was to sell for a surprisingly low $35,000 to $50,000. This is about a tenth the cost of a similar, dual-armed PR2 mobile manipulation robot developed at Willow Garage, the company that also developed the popular, open source ROS development environment.

UBR-1 features
(click image to enlarge)

Yet after going on pre-order last April, little was heard from Unbounded. By August, IEEE Spectrum reported the company was shutting down, possibly due to issues with the Willow Garage spin-off agreement that prevented Unbounded from raising series A funding. The UBR-1 never shipped.

Unbounded CEO Melanie Wise, who was the chief developer of the PR2, is now CEO at Fetch. Other key Unbounded staffers, who similarly worked at Willow Garage, have also jumped to Fetch. These include CTO Michael Ferguson, lead systems engineer Derek King, and lead mechanical engineer Eric Diehr.

In an email to LinuxGizmos, Wise confirmed the new ROS-enabled robots will run on Linux. Beyond that, she referred us to a new IEEE Spectrum interview dated Feb. 9.

In the IEEE Spectrum interview, Wise says that Fetch was originally founded as FYS (Fetch Your Stuff) Systems, by Steve Hogan at technology incubator Tech-Rx. “Since the team from Unbounded was looking for something new to do, we saw a posting on Robotics Worldwide,” Wise told IEEE. “We applied, and the rest is history.”

Much of that history is still a mystery, however. Wise hints at some of it in the interview, but speaks carefully. She does offer a few more details on Fetch. In the interview, Wise said that one of the new robots will be a mobile manipulator with sensors and “an arm or arms,” and the other will be a mobile base, “and they’ll work together.” She added that the robots will cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, “not hundreds of thousands.”

Fetch will likely show off the robots at ICRA (IEEE Robotics & Automation Society), to be held May 26-30 in Seattle, said Wise. Meanwhile, the company is hiring, and expects to double its 10 person staff within six months.

Wise told IEEE Spectrum that there’s no relationship between Fetch and either the defunct Willow Garage or Unbounded Robotics, which still has an active website despite the lack of a new blog entry since June. In the interview, both she and Shasta Ventures managing director Rob Coneybeer claimed that Fetch owns or uses no IP from either entity. “It’s all new IP,” said Wise. “The robots are completely different.”

Mobile manipulation takes off

Coneybeer goes on to tell IEEE Spectrum: “Robotics is reaching an inflection point where you start to be able to do interesting things because of advances in actuators and processors and machine vision that allow robots to work in close proximity to people.”

The key innovation of the UBR-1, however, was the ability to combine those human-friendly algorithms with semi-autonomous mobility and dexterous gripper arms in an affordable package, says Dan Kara, Practice Director, Robotics, at ABI Research. The Fetch robot will likely advance that recipe, Kara told LinuxGizmos.

“Mobile manipulation is the hot category in robotics these days,” said Kara. “Everyone is looking for a robot that can go somewhere on their own and do something meaningful. To a large part, robot navigation has been solved, especially with OpenCV vision technology being integrated into ROS. Robots are now beginning to travel on their own through highly unstructured dynamic environments like a busy office or factory floor. At the same time, the industrial manipulators coming out of research institutions are getting pretty good, with all types of new grasping technologies. So you have robots that can move and robots that can manipulate, but until the UBR-1, we haven’t seen one that can do both, and still come in at $50,000.”

Even setting aside the still substantial challenges in human-robot interaction and autonomous movement, engineering a mobile robot with a heavy, dexterous arm and gripper assembly is difficult. Beyond the challenge of folding the arm assembly into the base so it’s sufficiently balanced for mobility, it’s even harder to do this at under $100,000.

Beam (left) and Beam+
(click to enlarge)

The other spinoffs from Willow Garage aside from Unbounded Robotics have focused on the mobility aspect, but lack manipulation appendages. These include Suitable Technologies, makers of the Beam and Beam+ mobile telepresence robots, and Savioke’s SaviOne hospitality robot, which is being tested at a California hotel for room service duty. Like the UBR-1 and the Fetch robot, both similarly combine Linux with ROS.

Meanwhile, ROS is now being maintained by the Open Source Robotics Foundation, which is also integrating Linux with the formerly microcontroller focused platform. Initially, it’s adding ARM/Linux support to ROS, focused on the Qualcomm Snapdragon.

Former Willow Garage CEO Steve Cousins, who had previously worked at IBM and Xerox PARC research centers, helped spin off Suitable Technologies, which is headed up by former Willow Garage cofounder Scott Hassan. Cousins also helped spin off Unbounded Robotics, and then went on to launch Savioke, where he is CEO.

SaviOne with Savioke CEO Steve Cousins (left) and delivering fresh towels
(click images to enlarge)

Last September, after IEEE Spectrum confirmed the demise of Unbounded Robotics, ABI’s Kara posted an analysis piece, in which he questioned the premise that Wise and her team left due to prohibitions on funding. (It’s unlikely they would have launched the company if they had not known about such restrictions, he argued.)

At the time, Kara also rejected the idea that VCs weren’t interested in Unbounded. Kara floated the possibility that the Willow spinoff agreement might have specified the sharing of key technologies that might emerge based on Willow IP, such as the ability to combine mobility with manipulation. As noted, the Beam and the SaviOne can move, but lack manipulation.

Today, Kara says it’s still unclear on what transpired, and he’s not ruling out the stated issue about investment restrictions. However, it does seem clear that that Unbounded didn’t shut down because it couldn’t attract investors, he noted. “These are the right people, and this is the right technology,” he says. “Mobile manipulation is where it’s at.”

One reason mobile manipulation is such a hot ticket is the growth in the logistics and fulfillment market caused by the boom in ecommerce, says Kara. In her IEEE interview, Wise specifically mentioned order fulfillment as a key application for the Fetch robot.

Kara noted that Amazon has found great success with the 2012 acquisition of Kiva Systems that brought it a fleet of Kiva robots, some 15,000 of which move packages around Amazon fulfillment centers. Amazon won’t release the Kiva design until at least 2016, so “if you’re a small fulfillment company, you’re out of luck in terms of getting leading technology,” says Kara.

The ROS-based Kiva is basically a semi-autonomous forklift without arms. You still need to load it and unload it on each end of the process. Amazon has launched a Picking Challenge for ICRA 2015 that challenges robot designers to use armed manipulation robots to find, and move, selected packages in an unstructured environment. Contestants can bring their own robots or choose from a variety of donated platforms including the Clearpath Robotics version of the open source PR2 design, as well as Rethink Robotics’ Linux-based Baxter.

Kuka YouBot
(click to enlarge)

iRobot Ava 500
(click to enlarge)

None of these are mobile platforms, however, and the test will be limited to stationary picking. It will be interesting to see if Fetch decides to enter a robot to show off its picking skills, even if its mobility won’t win it any points.

Other mobile manipulation products are still being refined, and most cost over $100,000 of dollars, says Kara. These include Robotnik’s G-WAM, as well as Kuka’s Omnirob and the Neobotix MM Series. It’s unclear if any of these models incorporate Linux, which is found in the Kuka YouBot service robot and the Neobotix Mobile Robot MP-400.

Other robotics companies looking at the mobile manipulation space include iRobot, says Kara. The company uses Linux in some of its robots, including the Ava 500 telepresence bot and a hackable version of the Roomba. Other potential players in mass-market mobile manipulators include Rethink (imagine a mobile Baxter) and Harvest Automation, whose HV100 bot pushes and carries plants and trees in nurseries, says Kara.

ABI: Home and lawn care leads consumer robot apps

Linux appears to be on the rise in robotics, says Kara, although he notes that ABI Research has yet to do an in-depth study of OS market share in robotics. “Most of the ROS projects I hear about these days run on Linux,” he says. “Most of these products are spun out of research environments where there’s a propensity to use Linux with ROS.”

The fastest growing robot category in the non-industrial market, however, is home and lawn care, where robots like the Roomba don’t usually require an advanced processor or OS. Lawn-mowing, pool-cleaning, vacuuming, and floor cleaning bots can usually get by with ROS or something similar running directly on microcontrollers. A Feb. 10 study from ABI projects that the home and lawn care market will surpass $2.9 billion by 2019, up from $1.2 billion in 2014, with the number of units increasing from 3.4 million to 7 million during that period.

Other hot robot categories where you’re more likely to see Linux is the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market. A Jan. 5 study from ABI projects that the small drone market will reach $8.4 billion by 2018. By 2019, commercial products such as agricultural drones, will dominate the small UAV market with $5.1 billion in revenues, which will be 2.3 times larger than the military/civil market, and five times more than the prosumer/hobby market.

Segments that have not taken off as expected include all-purpose personal home robots, and robotic home health care. says Kara. In both cases, this is partly due to the greater complexity and variety of tasks involved, which also adds to overall cost. In the case of healthcare bots, sales have been limited since insurance companies have not committed to the devices.

(click to enlarge)

In the personal robot space, Kara is intrigued by the new social robots coming out with advanced natural language processing and contextual aware AI, most of which run Linux. He says the horse to watch here is not the highly touted Pepper from Aldeberan and SoftBank, but the simpler, much more affordable MIT Media Lab spinoff, Jibo.

Jibo’s simpler design — it pivots in a sentient-like way, but doesn’t have arms or mobility — keeps the cost down and limits breakage, says Kara. “Jibo is also opening up its Linux development platform so you can imaging Jibo versions tailored for preschool teaching or elder assistance, or family scheduling,” he says. “This open is up to a broad range of applications that should sustain it for the future.”

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