Robotics for Profit and Fun

Last week Kiva Systems, a maker of robots for distribution warehouses, was bought by Amazon for $775M in cash.  It’s the biggest deal ever in robotics.  They were founded in 2003, and last year had sales of about $100M.  Their main backer was Bain Venture Capital, so this will be another chunk of change for Mitt Romney.  I’ve been following them for a while because they have what seems like a simple but great idea – have robots do most of the work in distribution warehouses.  They carry shelves of products to tables where human workers can then pack them into boxes.   No more running up and down endless aisles trying to find the one widget someone has ordered – just have the robot get the whole thing.  People are actually far better than robots at handling parts of myriad sizes and fragility, so bring the box to them and let them move the part into its shipping container.  Here’s a video from IEEE Spectrum showing the system:

One of the cool features is how they get these little robots to raise a 1000-pound shelf.  There’s a big screw jack on top of each one.  It drives under the shelf, raises the jack with a separate motor, and then when it’s touching the bottom, it spins itself in a circle to keep the screw stationary while it moves upwards.  The screw is the most difficult part of the system and was (as of 2008) actually made in Massachusetts.

Amazon itself has not been using this system.  They used people, working under frequently hellish conditions.  This report from the Morning Call newspaper in Pennsylvania talks about how they would keep an ambulance standing by for when people fainted from heat exhaustion.  It was cheaper than air-conditioning a big warehouse, I guess.  They refused to improve ventilation by opening the loading bay doors for fear of theft.  Typical one percenters. With Kiva’s scheme, though, they can leave the warehouse hot or cold and just condition the area where the people are.  Kiva might be worth it to them just to stave off the inevitable lawsuits, or worse still, unionization. Now that Amazon controls this tech, they’re also likely to deny it to other online retailers, further cementing their monopoly.

Kiva was founded by Mick Mountz (CEO) and Peter Wurman (CTO), who were roommates as undergrad Mech E’s at MIT in the mid-80s.    Mountas went off to Apple and Motorola, and then had his dot-com baptism by fire while being logistics manager for WebVan, an online grocery deliverer.  Wurman got a doctorate at U Mich and became an associate prof at NC State, while working at Kiva on the side. The third major figure is Raffaello D’Andrea, formerly at Cornell and now a professor at ETH Zurich.  While at Cornell he taught robots how to play soccer, which turned out to be crucial to keeping them from crashing into one another.

FIRST Boston 2012 contestants in the Rebound Rumble. Photo by Christina Rizer

Who knew that something as frivolous as robot soccer could have such big applications?  The people who run the FIRST robot competition, that’s who.  The local playoff was held last Sunday at the Agganis Arena at Boston University, and  I took my seven-year-old son to see it.   High school teams from all over the Northeast came, and even ones from Israel and Turkey.  Each team had six weeks to build a machine that could snarf up basketballs and shoot them into hoops at varying heights.  At the end of each match the robots had to drive up on a seesaw and balance there.  Two teams would compete, with three bots on each side from separate teams.   Some would specialize in blocking, others in gathering balls for their side, and others in shooting, so there was a lot of strategy involved.  They were usually driven by remote control, but had to shoot autonomously for the first few seconds of the round.

They gave stats on the national competition, and California, as you might expect, had the most teams with 195. However, Michigan had 193 teams with only 1/3 of CA’s population.  They know where manufacturing is going.  The highest per-capita number was Minnesota with 154 teams in a state of only 5M people.

Half the arena was blocked off for a prep area, and the other half for the playing court.  The arena seats in that half were almost full!  Every team had at least their own T-shirt, and some had real costumes.  Many brought cheering sections from their high schools.  There were a lot of booths outside for local tech firms to show off their stuff.   Boston has become something of a center for robotics, largely because of Rodney Brooks of MIT and his firm iRobot.  That’s why Kiva wound up here instead of in the Valley.  iRobot, by the way, just won a big contract for nuclear power plant inspection, thanks to the good publicity they got by helping out with the Fukushima disaster.

There was pounding music and two manic cheerleaders announcing the teams and giving commentary.   Everyone cheered at great plays and groaned when one of the robots fell over.    Some of the teams had their own dance moves, which they would show off before a round.  Nerds are so much cooler now than in my day!  And if Kiva is any indication, there’s a bright future in this stuff.

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