Reach Robotics' CEO lays out his business case. AUVSI photo.
Five technology companies went up against each other in a “Shark Tank” style competition at Innorobo 2014, including the makers of a robot fighting game, a shielded unmanned aircraft that can be flown anywhere and a nanobot that can herd tiny protein crystals to help develop new drugs.
A panel of judges from the tech world graded the companies on the strength of their business plan and the skill of their pitches. The winner? The fighting robots, which the company’s young CEO promised would be the hottest toy under Christmas trees in 2016.
The winner was Reach Robotics, a five-person United Kingdom startup that’s currently working out of a San Diego, California-based business incubator.
CEO Silas Adekunle said the toys will revolutionize computer gaming by taking it into the real world. The company aims to sell its Mecha Monster robots for $150 each as well as market extra weapons and other accessories. Adekunle promised a marketing blitz that includes showing off the systems at Comic-Con and GameCon.
“What we really want to do is make robots fun for everyone,” Adekunle said. “Like it or not, in 2016 the gaming robots are coming.”
Runner-ups for the competition included Flyability, which builds the Gimball, a small UAS that’s wrapped in a protective plastic shroud, enabling it to be flown indoors, where it can easily bounce off obstacles. It’s suited for tasks such as indoor power plant inspections, where it can replace dangerous manned operations, said cofounder and CEO Patrick Thevoz.
The company has already won $1 million for the program in a Dubai competition, said Thevoz, who demonstrated the system’s ease of use by having an assistant fly it onstage at the end of his presentation, where it landed in the palm of his hand.
Another runner-up was Empire Robotics, maker of a versatile gripping hand spun out of research from Cornell University. The Versaball system uses a flexible membrane stuffed with sand-like material. It can wrap itself around odd and delicate shapes, such as lightbulbs. Then the system sucks the air out of the gripper and it tightens around the object.
The original version used a latex membrane filled with coffee grounds, but that material wore out quickly and the company has since replaced it with longer-lasting materials, President and Cofounder Bill Culley said.
Switzerland’s MagnebotiX has devised a tiny nanobot, named Rodbot, that can wrangle protein crystals to aid in the development of new medicines. The basic system costs $15,000, with each Rodbot costing $15 each.
Also competing was Optoforce from Hungary, which has developed sturdy, inexpensive touch sensors.
Future Cities and Factories
Speakers on the second day of the symposium highlighted the many changes that robotics will bring to cities around the world. Urban populations are increasing, creating monumental traffic jams that sap economic vitality, pollute the atmosphere and add to commuter stress.
MIT’s Sensable City lab hopes to help stem those problems through a variety of initiatives, including by developing smart intersections that would allow self-driving cars to quickly maneuver through city centers without the need for traffic signals.
They have created a joint initiative with the National University of Singapore, which faces ever-increasing traffic problems. Marcelo Ang from the university highlighted one such program, which gave visitors to a city garden the chance to ride around in self-driving golf carts last year, although they had to be followed around by a safety “driver” riding a bicycle who could stop the cart if needed.
Ang said people can still drive their own human-operated cars for fun, but predicted they will mainly do so on the weekend when they flee the city center for fun.
Innorobo itself featured a self-driving vehicle, a cart from France’s IMobs, or Innovative Mobility, that carried show attendees from nearby hotels and restaurants to the symposium site, ferrying them through the wilting 90-degrees-plus heat of Lyon, France, where the show was held.
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