N.H. firm's machines are smarter than the average robot


For years, experts have promised that mobile, intelligent robots (think R2D2 from "Star Wars") would be part of our daily environment, performing tasks that otherwise might require a human being. Until recently, however, such robots have been more science fiction than science fact. ActivMedia Robotics, a 24-person company based in Peterborough, is working to change that. Mobile robots are nothing new. Many companies have deployed such devices inside warehouses, for example, to deliver crates and boxes from place to place. But most mobile robots must either follow a fixed pathway, often tracking a black line on a white floor. The problem with this approach is that the pathway must be changed every time the facility changes and, worse, any misplaced objects in the pathway can confuse the robot to the point where it can no longer function. ActivMedia's robots, by contrast, know where they are located and can easily avoid misplaced objects that might block their route. As the robot moves, it shoots out laser beams (similar to those in laser pointers) which, when read with the robot's special sensors, tell it where it's located within the building. At the same time, the robot's wheels keep track of where the robot has traveled, correcting this "dead reckoning" with gyroscopes similar to those used on guided missiles. Meanwhile, sonar sensors send out sound blips and read the echoes, allowing the robot to "see" objects in its path, much like a flying bat navigates and searches for food. The robot's on-board computer, using special ActivMedia software, analyzes the various forms of sensor data and decides how to cope with anything unexpected. The result is a robot that is almost human-like in its ability to adapt to its environment and perform its assigned tasks. "We've created a set of robotics platforms that can be applied to a wide variety of industrial applications," says CEO Jeanne Dietsch. For example, Hewlett-Packard is currently using an ActivMedia PatrolBot to monitor room temperatures at multiple locations inside one of its computer data centers. This allows Hewlett-Packard's IT staff to more efficiently balance power usage, thereby reducing energy costs. "They couldn't use fixed temperature gauges because all those devices sticking up into the air would make it impossible for people to walk through the facility," says Dietsch. "And if you asked a human to do the job, thrusting a temperature monitor here, there and everywhere, he or she would quickly go mad with boredom." In other words, this is a case where a mobile, intelligent robot can do an important job better and more effectively than a human. A growing market Another ActivMedia customer, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, is testing out a PatrolBot to use as an assistant security guard. As the robot moves through two buildings at a utility plant, the robot's Net-cam, mounted on its "head," checks out gauges to make certain nothing's about to go wrong with the chemical processes that take place within the facility. The robot also pokes into nooks and crannies where the facility's wall-mounted security cameras can't reach. This allows the human guard at the main security desk to check on the safety and status of the facility without leaving the desk unattended. The robot will thus increase the safety of the facility while saving personnel costs, according to Doug Brush, assistant manager of utilities and engineering services at Pfizer Global R&D. ActivMedia also had a robot installed at the headquarters of lingerie manufacturer Victoria's Secret, where it was to be employed for theft prevention. However, because the firm did not have a wireless network installed throughout the facility, the project was delayed. ActivMedia's involvement in advanced robotics goes back to 1995, when Dietsch left nearby iRobots (which has a large facility in Milford) to pursue a more commercially oriented strategy. ActivMedia has received funding grants from DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and the National Institutes of Health, both agencies that support research into advanced technology. ActivMedia's robots aren't all work and no play, however. The company's creations are three-time winners of the World RoboCup Soccer Championship, in which robots play soccer completely without human controllers. The company also has won competitions sponsored by the American Association for Artificial Intelligence. There are more than 1,500 ActivMedia robots deployed worldwide, although not all of them are as sophisticated as the company's most current designs. The company also has been growing rapidly as the market for commercial robots continues to increase from its current level of about $20 million, according to Dietsch. In fact, Deloitte & Touche recently named ActivMedia among the 50 fastest-growing companies in New England, an honor shared by only four other New Hampshire firms.