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Modbot – Robot Development Software: An Interview with Adam Ellison and Daniel Pizzata

Adam Ellison and Daniel Pizzata, Founders of Modbot talk to AZoRobotics about robot development software.

Can you provide me with an introduction to Modbot?

An introduction, I guess a bit of background first. Daniel and I have known each other for about 10 years, we went to university together a long time ago. Daniel worked in the defense sector and I worked in the automotive engineering sector. We overlapped a lot during our time there, and we came together for this idea about a year ago. We basically explored the idea of improving the way that robots are built, which evolved over time into an entire building platform, which is Modbot. We launched it officially at the TechCrunch Hardware Battlefield event at CES in Vegas. That was the first time that we publicly displayed anything.

What are the fundamental building blocks for the construction of robots?

First of all we just looked at rotary joints. Because, there are robots that use sliding joints, but they are inferior for a lot of reasons. So we limited our robots to ones that have rotary joints much like animals and people do. The fundamental components that we have identified are the servomotor, which is the motion driver; the joint, which is effectively a hinge that constrains the degrees of freedom so that it can move; and then the link which can connect both elements together.

What type of automated manufacturing and consumer robots can be assembled using the Modbot platform?

This is actually a very interesting question because it’s with Modbot that automated manufacturing itself can be created and that this automated manufacturing can then build consumer robots. When you’re developing a series of products for example, the development of that product might require an automation system. For example, in my experience if you want to build a PCB board, you could use a very quick robot to collect and trace paths on top of the PCB but the same moving device could then go and use a soldering iron to paste all of those paths down and pick them up and melt them etc.

The same thing happens in the fabrication of metals that might be required for products where single robots are automatically reconfigurable for multiple uses. The giant moving robots will be put into a production line in order to pump basic products out. With Modbot, the capacity to design a precise moving apparatus is what the manufacturers will require. One of the advantages is the fact that there is a capacity to reconfigure it.

If you want to use the same device to do more than one thing, you can. Just develop the software model behind it to do that. If you want to use the same pieces of equipment but to build multiple units you can. The devise is inherently multi-purpose, but when put together the actual parts you get are versatile as well. The primary example we are using to try to help people visualize what you can do with Modbot is a robotic camera dolly.

It will basically hold the camera and point the camera where it needs to point. This was used in the movie Gravity recently; however, the devices they used were very expensive. We can probably do something very similar, but for a lot less money. One of the goals for advertising a specific product using Modbot is to help photographers around the world have access to the same technology that our friends were using in Gravity.

A lot of the implementations of how to assemble Modbot will be generated by what consumers and makers decide to build, but to begin with you can imagine that prosthetic arms and hands tend to be popular by robotics students, that they can build a telepresence robot - one that will use the servers to provide feedback so that it can accurately keep itself stable. You can build a position detecting robot that can help in the health industry.

Assembly of Modbot for the design and construction of a Prosthetic leg.

Assembly of Modbot for the design and construction of a Prosthetic leg.

What are the main benefits of this platform for the end-user?

We see it as easy access, it's basically accessibility. This is one of our key motivators at Modbot.  We want to make robots accessible both in crafts and education; you don't necessarily have to be a robot scientist to use Modbot parts to build robots. We provide user libraries that make it easier to program, easier to assemble physically, easier to get feedback and collaborate with others.

How is this platform applied?

Let’s take the camera dolly as an example. It is like the Lego technique: you basically order a kit, which would be the set of parts that you need to build the robot. It would come with instructions on-line, it is much like Ikea actually. You just assemble the components and then you plug it into the power.  Essentially start teaching it some tricks, and that’s when you have a working robot. It is feasible to build a robot in less than half an hour, by the time we have our mature kits ready to ship.

What industry sectors are starting to take notice of your platform?

The first ones that are talking to us right now are educational institutes and the hobby industry. There are quite a few people building robots using radio-control servos and I myself was doing that recently for a job, but they are not satisfactory in many ways. The hobby industry is looking for high quality, and the education industry is looking for a good building platform to learn about robots.

I should just add to that after initially talking about the hobby sector and education; we do expect to start talking to the consumer industry which is where the camera dolly might come into play.  Then we will tackle the manufacturing industry.  We need a bit more maturity in the product level to get ready to mention manufacturing.

Example of Modbot being used as a camera dolly.

Example of Modbot being used as a camera dolly.

Application of Modbot for the design and construction of Humanoids.

Application of Modbot for the design and construction of Humanoids.

Do you have any development aims currently in process for advancing this tool?

Yes, we'd like to have a fully functioning robot, a complete robot arm to demonstrate in the next month or two.

How do you see the platform transforming the robotics industry with regard to automated manufacturing?

This is my favorite one, my background is actually in automated manufacturing in the automotive industry. The way I see this being used is in the flexible and fast development of small manufacturing lines. There is a big shift in consumer products and other products, which customize manufacturing. What that means is that manufacturers are doing smaller runs of action on a particular product. Reconfigurability is really important for them.

We see Modbot sitting long-term in an environment where not only are the software and production of a part reconfigurable but the robot itself is reconfigurable. You could convert your six degrees of freedom robot arm into a 3D printer, and then back again when you didn't need it. As you can imagine that would add flexibility to a manufacturing line.

Where can we find further information about your platform and services?

The website is probably the best, we are going to add material.

Would you tell me something about your company members?

I'll tell you my background first: I initially studied in mechanical engineering. And then went to work at General Motors where I was doing injection mold part design, from there I went to manufacturing design work for Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Then I decided I needed to know more about business, so I went back to school. This is essentially the first time I have combined my two passions which are robotics/automotive machinery and business. Daniel has a similar but different story.

I'm from Western Australia originally, from sunny Perth. I spent most of my time doing everything creative that I could possibly get my hands on. I was always interested in science and technology. When I left school, I actually went to university to get a business degree for a year and a half, and it wasn't challenging enough and so I decided to jump into an engineering double degree. I did a physics degree combined with a communications and electronic engineering degree at Curtin University in Perth, which is a technology University.

I was picked up by the department of defense; I worked for the navy and later moved over to army.  Eventually I was picked up for a specialty program in Canberra, called the rapid prototyping, development and evaluation group, otherwise known as RPDE, to work for the air force. That was in a secret environment dealing with communications across very low band-width in very high priority environments for the Airforce.

I found most of my skill sets were best utilized in technology development. I was then brought down to Melbourne, where I now live, to head up a robot development project to develop an autonomous robot to scout around and do electromagnetic measurements. I loved it, absolutely loved it! Meeting Adam, back at Curtin University, meant that seeing each other again years later over a few coffees led to realizing that we can do it better than anyone else. The people we have worked for don't seem to be willing to work as fast as we think we can. We jumped out and did it ourselves, and are definitely not looking back.  Between the two of us we are pretty happy.

About Adam Ellison

Adam Ellison

Born in Papua New Guinea to missionary parents, Adam had an unusual childhood. Most of his early life was spent in a remote school in the East New Britain Province, where his father was the business manager. For most of primary school Adam was homeschooled by his mother, a qualified teacher. This meant he could keep up with the Australian curriculum during the morning, spending afternoons building things or exploring the beaches and jungles nearby. By the age of 12, Adam had designed and built his own fishing speargun and battery lead recycling system. He had also experienced a major volcanic eruption, an armed holdup and regular earthquakes. Despite this, every spare moment was spent drawing designs or building a new idea.

Adam went on to study Mechanical engineering at Curtin University in Perth, where he first met Daniel, now his cofounder at Modbot. Specialising in Automotive Engineering, Adam moved to Melbourne to work at General Motors, where he designed parts of the Chevy Caprice Police vehicle, the Camaro (of transformers’ Bumblebee fame) and some local Holden models. Eventually frustrated by the limited scope of his design role, Adam returned to university, graduating from a bachelors degree in Commerce, majoring in Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Over several years Adam ran an engineering consultancy, a construction company and a digital media startup. After building up a diverse range of business skills, he decided to return to his technical roots and launch a robotics company with Daniel Pizzata. Modbot was born.

About Daniel Pizzata

Daniel Pizzata

Born in Perth, Western Australia, Daniel has led a boundless and ambitious life. From the early years Daniel excelled in creative talents inspired by his musical parents. Classically trained on Piano by age 7, Daniel was already connecting creativity with invention exploring rudimentary LASER construction and building a functioning retroreflector at age 9.

While teaching Kung Fu, Daniel studied a double degree in Electronics & Communications engineering and Physics at Curtin University of Technology graduating in the top 1% of his faculty. It was in first year that he met Adam who would later become his co-founder of Modbot.

Daniel was picked up by the Department of Defence straight from university and after integrating communication systems into the Navy, designing secure electronics for the Air Force and supporting multi-billion dollar contract negotiations for Army all around Australia, Daniel was placed as the engineering lead on the development of autonomous robotics in Melbourne.

Feeling limited by the industry Daniel realised he had been an inventor his whole life combining creativity with technology and left Defence to become a contractor providing senior electronics expertise to companies such as BAE Systems. It was by chance that Daniel and Adam were brought together in Melbourne and in only a few meetings they had shared the challenges they had faced in there respective technology industries and together decided to found Modbot.


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