By Olivia Vanni, staff writer, BostInno
Right across the street from Alewife Station in Cambridge sits a campus sprinkled with autonomous vehicles, like a converted 1967 VW Bus and a tricycle. 35 Cambridge Park Drive is home to Vecna Technologies, a company where watching robots wander about on their own is business as usual.
Vecna, a robot logistics company, started as a government contractor. Over time, it has taken the innovations it has developed for the public sector and translated them to make commercial products. Its robots range from the “BEAR” (or Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot) to the QCBot, which you may have recently seen is being used by Dana-Farber to deliver medication to patients, to VGo, the telepresence robot technology Vecna acquired last year.
What you may not know is that every product that Vecna offers is made on its Cambridge campus.
“Building things is what it’s been about from the start,” Daniel Theobald, co-founder and chief innovation officer at Vecna, said. “Robotics has been our focus since the beginning.”
So it would only make sense for Vecna to take on all of the prototyping and assembly operations itself, rather than outsourcing them. Theobald says making everything onsite allows the company to accelerate the engineering and manufacturing processes. He told us, “In today’s economy, agility and speed are key to getting to market. The old way, going back and forth, will put you behind.”
“Manufacturing here is flexible and fast,” Anton Richardson, a mechanical engineer at Vecna, said. “Engineers can walk over to the shop and they can all sit down to figure something out instantly instead of sending emails back-and-forth for weeks.”
“It was a different transition for us,” Bob Stocks, Vecna’s Prototype Machine Shop Manager, told us. “We converted to verbal instruction and the turnaround time has become faster.”
The manufacturing facility on campus has grown over the years, as the company gradually acquired different equipment as needed. At first, Vecna had outsourced all of its shop work. Theobald said he was becoming increasingly frustrated by issues, such as a snag with turnaround time.
When Theobald met Stocks, who previously owned a machine shop dedicated to R&D up in Wilmington, Mass., they decided to merge their two businesses. Theobald told us, “I said, ‘You know what, we really need to bring this equipment in-house. We can’t spend a week waiting every time we need brackets.”
Stocks added, “He turned to me and said, ‘I’ll take everything.’”
There are times when Vecna is almost exclusively doing prototyping and focusing on innovating. Other times, the company dedicates much of its resources to assembling products.
Vecna doesn’t just manufacture its own products. Its shop services members of the community. For instance, it’s currently working with Massachusetts General Hospital on a portable MRI machine.
“We’re trying to be partners in the innovation process,” Theobald said. “That’s key. We have excess capacity and we can share with the community. We can provide value in collaboration.”
Vecna currently has about 160 employees, with numerous PhDs working in the engineering group. Their backgrounds include advanced degrees from schools like MIT and Carnegie Mellon. And some team members even have Mars rover development under their belts.
That said, having an impressive resume and a PhD doesn’t make you a shoo-in hire at this advanced manufacturing company. In addition to those ever-coveted STEM skills, Vecna looks for candidates with soft skills, which Theobald says are crucial as well.
“We have seen amazing resumes incapable of being part of the team here,” he said. “They’re accomplished, but communication skills are necessary to do product turnarounds like we do.
By Olivia Jeffers, Compassionate Technology
Boston has a long relationship with trade and tea. Hopefully ushering a new era of collaborative investment, Xin Liu brings tea to the Massachusetts State House with inTeahouse and MassRobotics’ first U.S.-China Robotics Summit on Thursday, October 13.
Surrounded by U.S. state flags, inTeahouse coordinated a beautiful and calming tea ceremony, uniting the intentions of MassRobotics and the People’s Republic of China to increase investment and cooperation in robotics.
InTeahouse recently founded by Xin Liu, with their flagship office in Cambridge, MA, has the goal of fostering U.S.-China tech investments and collaboration. They are opening 9 more offices in Europe, the U.S., and Asia, with the goal of creating a global network.
China lags behind in industrial automation
There’s a large gap and need for robotics in China, and surprisingly, “China lags behind in [the] industrial space in automation” says Christian Ma, COO of inTeahouse.
Xing Jijun, Counselor of Science and Technology with the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in New York, says that service robots are a large priority given China’s aging population as a result of the one child policy, creating many 421 families, with 1 grandchild supporting 4 grandparents in old age.
Not only in service robotics, China has an initiative to become one of the top 10 in industrial use of robotics by 2020.
Coming out of the “Made in China” era of heavy industrial and manufacturing growth, China is now grasping onto emerging technologies and making moves towards creating the future, not just manufacturing it.
And what about artificial intelligence?
“What drives robotics is AI, it’s all artificial intelligence,” says Ma, it’s about “using intelligence to drive mechanics, intelligently, and create a system out of it.”
Given the power and unknowability of artificial intelligence, heavy investments in robotics and AI naturally brings up fears for the future.
In the United States, artificial intelligence quickly turns into thoughts of Skynet and job loss. In China however, a high value on efficiency and pragmatism in the culture might create an emotionally accepting market for in-home robotic devices.
Brain Robotics Capital, an early stage investment fund based out of Kendall Square, focusing on U.S.-China investments in artificial intelligence and robotics, including Jibo, an emotional robot for the family home. Jibo, a Boston-based company, has eyes on the Chinese market for their cute and almost cuddly robot.
In terms of robotics, the role of consumer and producer between the U.S. and China may flip, with the Chinese and Asian consumer markets driving robotics and AI.
Why collaborate with China?
“We must be willing to work together in ways [that we were] uncomfortable with in the past,” says Tom Ryden, Executive Director of MassRobotics.
Dan Theobald, Chief Innovation Officer of Vecna Technologies, believes that by engaging in a precompetitive collaboration with China, that robotics “if done correctly, [..] can be a great equalizer” for many problems facing humanity today.
Facilitating these collaborations, inTeahouse offers quarterly Sector Summits for American companies to visit Chinese tech centers such as Zhongguancun of Beijing and Shenzhen of Guangdong Province.
Congratulations to Chris Larsen and Guangyu Sun for being published in the Nucleic Acids Research journal. Their article “Influenza Research Database: An integrated bioinformatics resource for influenza virus research” can be found here.
The article has great information about the work we are doing at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)-sponsored Bioinformatics Resource Center.
The Influenza Research Database (IRD) is a U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)-sponsored Bioinformatics Resource Center dedicated to providing bioinformatics support for in- fluenza virus research. IRD facilitates the research and development of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics against influenza virus by providing a comprehensive collection of influenza-related data integrated from various sources, a growing suite of analysis and visualization tools for data mining and hypothesis generation, personal workbench spaces for data storage and sharing, and active user community support. Here, we describe the recent improvements in IRD including the use of cloud and high performance computing resources, analysis and visualization of user-provided sequence data with associated metadata, predictions of novel variant proteins, annotations of phenotype-associated sequence markers and their predicted phenotypic effects, hemagglutinin (HA) clade classifications, an automated tool for HA subtype numbering conversion, linkouts to disease event data and the addition of host factor and antiviral drug components. All data and tools are freely available without restriction from the IRD website at https://www.fludb.org
By Daniel Theobald, Chief Innovation Officer, for Robotics Tomorrow
Why is integration among systems so important? How does this affect the value that a robot can bring to an industry?
In many ways, robotics is now where computers were several decades ago. There is no denying that computers and the internet have drastically changed the world—computers are now used in ways that weren’t ever imaginable, and have helped people around the world to achieve levels of education, employment, and freedom that were previously out of reach. Robotics will follow the same path. We are right at that tipping point, and if done right, robotics can be a boon to the entire human race.
But the only way to get over that threshold is to allow robots to seamlessly integrate with other systems– hardware to hardware, hardware to software, and software to software. In order for the robotics industry to propel itself forward, it needs to be able to build on what others have already done. This is a lesson learned from the computing industry; it was not until low-cost computers could run software written by a variety of companies that computers started to see real adoption in business. It was when they could easily connect to the rest of the world through the internet, allowing for easy email and web-browsing, that the computer industry really took off in a mass-consumer way. Most recently, this is what apps have done for mobile. By building on each other’s successes, we can rapidly advance the industry and therefore grow a bigger pie for the entire community. Computers have streamlined this process, as the feature that made them valuable is the ability to share information.
As an example, consider a QCBot delivering medication from the pharmacy to a nursing station in a hospital. Without integration when a delivery needs to be made, a person would have to find a robot, manually load the medication into the robot, tell the robot where to go, and send it on its way. At the other end, someone would need to realize that the robot was making a delivery, and then manually unload it. On the other hand, when fully integrated at the software level, the robot will automatically know from the hospital information system when deliveries need to be made. When integrated at the hardware level, the robot will be able to automatically pick up and drop off the deliveries without distracting a human from more important tasks like caring for a patient. When robots are truly integrated they will often become invisible, quietly doing their jobs without interrupting people.
Another simple example is a robot’s ability to use elevators. Right now there is no standard for robot elevator use. Each company builds a custom solution. That might be fine if no one ever planned on deploying robots from more than one company in a building. Obviously that won’t be practical as there will be a wide variety of robots on the market, each with a different set of capabilities, and there won’t be a one size fits all solution. Interoperability is the only viable solution.
Because we are still early in terms of market adoption for a lot of these types of robots, there aren’t a lot of interoperability standards yet. This gives us an opportunity to be proactive as an industry and define standards that will help make mass adoption of robots possible. Helping to define those standards is part of the mission of Mass Robotics and partner organizations like The Robotics Industries Association. This type of activity can have a big impact on making meaningful integration practical for the companies building or implementing robotics solutions.
You believe that, in order to propel the robotics industry forward, robotics companies need to collaborate. Why is that? What, if anything, do you think is holding the industry back?
Following up from above, the advancement of robotics will happen more quickly and provide more value with collaboration in the community around the adoption of reasonable interoperability standards. One reason this is hard is because it is easy to put it off, or expect that someone else is going to do it. Other things that will help propel the industry forward are increasing investment and adoption of automation by large companies, avoiding reinventing the wheel, focusing on the solution rather than the robot, and for the long-term, addressing a stronger focus on education.
Large companies are starting to seriously explore investing in their operations by adopting robotics. Robotic technology today is ready to be used to solve practical problems at large scale, and those companies that figure out where to effectively leverage robotics early on will have a huge advantage over their competitors as the pace of change and the need to adapt quickly in the global economy continues to increase. Robotic technology isn’t perfect, but the time has come to get it out of the lab and doing what it’s meant to do—work. Problems and imperfections often don’t surface until technological solutions are out in the real world. As long as we keep robots in the laboratory, we’re not going to make progress—we’re going to be focusing on the wrong problems until we make that leap.
Another thing that has been holding the industry back is too much wheel reinvention. A startup that wants to market gizmos on the web would be crazy to start out by trying to build their own computer from scratch to host the website. The computer isn’t the value add, it is their unique application. In the robotics industry, there are numerous off-the-shelf robotics systems out there that people could use to build their unique applications on, but for some reason, there is a strong tendency to want to build new robot hardware from the ground up.
Which leads to the point about focus. While it may not sound right, much of the robotics industry focuses way too much on robots (hardware), and way too little on the customer and the problem the robot will solve (software). Customers need their problems solved quickly, robustly, and cost-effectively. If a robot is a good fit, that’s great, but the focus must be on solving the problem, not how cool robots are. Also, it is important for people to realize that successful robotic systems are going to be mostly software. Robotics is 90% software—it’s what makes the robots useful.
One major thing that is lacking in our economy is access to enough engineering talent. We need to revamp the education system to encourage kids to start thinking creatively rather than memorizing facts, and to start engaging more actively in STEM disciplines. We can make science, technology, engineering, and mathematics significantly more interesting by showing kids real world applications and getting them to build and code much, much earlier. In fact, it’s been shown that project-based learning is significantly more effective than facts-based learning or exam-focused education; it’s a method of learning that actually sticks.
Which industries do you see as the most promising opportunities for the growth of robotics in the next few years?
There are exciting new startups popping up every day; for example, there are a number focusing on mass customization, where robots make it possible for customers to get a product tailored specifically for their needs but at mass-manufactured prices. Farming robots are a hot topic right now and is something that I am personally very interested in. I also think personal autonomous transportation and delivery is going to be big. Like it was with computers, all segments of our society will be dramatically affected by the growth in the robotics industry.
One of the areas that robotics can make a direct impact in is assistive technology, where the technology fundamentally changes lives for the better. For example, students like Christopher Leon who were not physically able to go to school can now do so using a VGo telepresence robot. Chris has excelled academically, opening up a wide range of possibilities that just weren’t available to him before. In fact, he is planning to go to college next year. I get pretty excited when robots allow people to accomplish things that were previously difficult or even impossible.
There has been a lot of selling of robotics companies lately – and also a rising interest from multiple sectors in buying or investing in automation solution providers. How do you explain this movement?
I think the general population and corporations around the world are starting to see that robotics is the future of our economy and that if they don’t start to play in that space, they will likely be left behind. The technology is ready for adoption and now is the right time to invest, but, just like the Dot Com era, it can be hard to sort out the real value from the hype. I hope we can manage to remember the Dot Com boom and bust and apply those lessons learned as robotics starts to generate similar levels interest and investment.
How do you answer the concern that robotics will put humans out of work and cause economic issues in the future?
It’s no secret that robots will change the way we do things, and in the process change the career opportunities available. This is the way technology has worked for hundreds of years. Someone figured out a better way to weave cloth, and most of the people that formerly weaved cloth went on to different jobs. Because of this automation, cloth and hence clothing is more affordable and available now than at any other time in human history. Not too long ago, if I were poor, I would only have one set of clothes, and if I lived in Africa, I might not have any, but now there is an abundance of clothing on the planet. So the tradeoff is often temporary employment disruption and change on one hand, and better access to goods and services for all people on the other hand.
The specific challenge here is that the change is happening faster than ever before, making it difficult for people to adapt and learn new skills fast enough. With more widespread use of automation, companies and society as a whole are facing a huge “change management” issue. We need to have a plan for how that shift is going to happen. It will take the combined efforts of industry, academia, and government to ensure that people aren’t left behind in the process.
Ideally, robots will allow humans to overcome their limitations in supplying basic needs. With everyone having access to basic needs – food, shelter, water – we can connect and contribute in more meaningful ways. This means allowing us to focus more on the creative, high-value jobs as well as caregiving – like nursing, caring for the elderly, and childcare. But, it’s incumbent upon industry, academia, and government to define this vision and to work together to help ensure that everyone wins in this transition.
Vecna has been developing robotics for logistics for some time. Tell us about your most recent innovations for the logistics and material handling industry. How do they differ from what is currently being used?
Practically everything we eat, drink, drive, wear and own came to us through a complex supply chain where human labor is employed to pick things up and put them down again in a different location. That’s where our family of robots comes in. They’re equipped to autonomously retrieve pallets, boxes, and even individual parts robustly while requiring little if any infrastructure changes. Most autonomous material-handling equipment on the market today tend to be infrastructure heavy, and lacks the flexibility to adapt rapidly to changing needs.
We also provide services to integrate the robotic systems with an enterprise’s IT systems in ways that provide superior efficiency of the systems and convenience for the users. Additionally, our robots are specifically designed to work collaboratively and safely with humans. In our system, we think of a system of “agents,” each with specific abilities. The agents can be a combination of a variety of robots and humans. The multi-agent coordination and planning features of our system can identify the best agent for a task and deploy that agent, whether it’s a human or a robot. This is one of the ways that we improve productivity – by using humans for what they’re good at (creative problem solving), and by using robots for what they’re good at (repetitive, dirty, and dangerous jobs). Using this approach, manufacturers and material handlers can prevent death, injury, damage, and delays, and also save billions of dollars annually.
We’ve invested heavily over the years in building a robust world-class autonomous navigation system; now we’re applying that technology to broader areas. For example, the same technology can be applied to people movers and personal transportation platforms, all robustly-integrated to allow operations to be more flexible, robust, and efficient than ever before.
By Leia Ruseva, Excerpt from Beantown Innovation
A sneak peek into the future would be incomplete without an army of robots. No, not the evil Terminator-like destroyers, but the ones that promise to propel humanity forward. Deriving its name from the Czech ‘vecny’ (meaning ‘eternal’), Vecna provides solutions for enterprise, healthcare, education and government, focusing its core research on enabling machines to independently navigate through unstructured environments, recognize human movements, faces and gestures, as well as specific objects. Their coolest projects include a telepresence robot for managing remote teams and VGo, a solution that helps kids transition back to the classroom after short- and long-term absences.
Navigation systems have made robots awfully clever – and mobile. Mobility presents one major challenge to safety: operation in dynamic, unstructured environments where objects, people, and even physical infrastructure like walls move with different frequency in different ways.
Cambridge, MA – Vecna’s Bear robot was recently reviewed in a BBC article by Sharon Weinberger as part of a general review of military robots. The article explores the growth in robotic “autonomy” while surveying several robots already in use by the military that lack autonomous features. By and large, the robots reviewed share the common purpose of keeping warfighters safer by taking on the more dangerous tasks on the battlefield and elsewhere. These robots are an invaluable resource to members of the military, helping warfighters in risky situations. In the article, Vecna’s CTO, Daniel Theobald, discusses the importance of these robots and how they’re changing things on the battlefield.
BOSTON, MA – WGBH’s Innovation Hub brings together industry leaders to talk about the solutions they’re creating to address some of society’s toughest challenges. On September 27th, Chief Technology Officer, Daniel Theobald will serve as one of four select panelists for the presentation, entitled “The New Economy: How Automation Is Changing the Game.” Theobald will discuss Vecna’s approach to solving challenges in the field of healthcare. He will also unveil the latest addition to Vecna’s product line: a rapid palletizing robot for use in industrial applications. (more…)
CAMBRIDGE, MA – On September 18, members of the robotics group from the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council converged upon Vecna’s Cambridge campus for a monthly cluster meeting. At this roundtable event, participants talked about state and federal funding opportunities, heard updates on the MassTLC Robotics Report, and viewed demonstrations of Vecna’s innovative solutions. (more…)