Vecna’s robotic logistics solutions are a family of autonomous mobile robots, built to operate within human-centric environments such as hospitals. In this in-depth interview, Daniel Theobald, the company’s CTO, explains the importance of user-centred design and standardization. The latter is a primary focus in Mass Robotics, the innovation hub he founded.
Vecna was co-founded by Theobold in 1998 with a mission to empower humanity through transformative technologies. Without any outside investment, the company has grown to be a world leader in healthcare and robotics, also making significant contributions to green energy and sustainable agriculture; Vecna’s employees are paid to spend four hours a week doing community service.
Top of his class at MIT, Theobold studied electrical, mechanical, and software engineering, worked on Mars rovers and received fellowships from Ford, Hertz, and NSF. He spoke to Robohub’s Audrow Nash at the INNOROBO conference, which took place in July in Lyon, France.
Audrow Nash: Tell me about Vecna.
Daniel Theobald: Vecna is a robotics and automation company that has been around for about 17 years now. It started with a group of engineers out of MIT and we’ve really focused on five areas of robotics: machine perception, which is the ability of robots to perceive and understand the environment; navigation, which is the ability of the robot to move around in the environment; manipulation, which is the ability of the robot to grasp, pick up and move objects; human-robot interaction, which is how robots and humans can collaborate and interact, and then the last area is high level optimization and planning, which is about how you can use many robots or robots and people to best accomplish some goals.
We bring all of these pieces together to try and use robots to provide real value to industry.
Audrow Nash: How did you pick these?
Daniel Theobald: We looked for the best way to break up the various aspects of robotics necessary to provide complete solutions to customers; we wanted to address all of the areas of robotics.
Over the years we’ve been fortunate to be able to do a significant amount of research in all these areas and our focus has always been: do interesting relevant research but make sure that we’re very connected to real customers and real problems, so that ultimately the technology can provide economic value. If you’re building robots just because they’re cool, you’re not going to be building them for very long because you won’t achieve enough income to sustain the process.
Audrow Nash: Can you tell me a bit about the robots that you’re building at Vecna?
Daniel Theobald: We have an entire range of robots. We’ve been focusing on what we call logistics. Anytime things need to move from one place to another, you can talk about that in terms of logistics. We have focused on having robots that can move objects ranging from less than 5 kilograms to 4,500 kilograms.
In hospitals, the concept we talk about is from the loading dock to the bedside. Hospitals will get large shipments of things, like pallets coming off trucks, we have robots that can move pallets and smaller robots that break down the pallets and then make deliveries to different floors and wards or even directly to a patient.
Audrow Nash: I want to focus a bit on the roaming robots. Can you describe what they look like?
Daniel Theobald: Yes, we have a robot called QC Bot, QC stands for Quality Care. In many ways it looks like an average cart that you would see in a hospital. It has a computer screen on it but it drives around by itself. It has a cabinet, with some drawers on it. These are interesting because they don’t have any handles; they’re just flat drawers. The reason they don’t have handles is because, in many cases, you need them to be secure. A human can’t just come along and pull on a handle to open it; the robot has to actively open the drawer, once the person has identified him or herself. You wouldn’t want someone opening a drawer and taking medication out, particularly as these robots roam the hallways of the hospitals where there are patients and random people, it’s not necessarily a controlled environment.
Audrow Nash: Tell me about how this affects the nurses?
Daniel Theobald: There are a couple of very useful benefits to the nurses. A really big benefit is that they can spend their time caring for patients rather than being couriers. Right now, nurses spend, in some cases, the majority of their time walking around, pushing a cart or carrying things from point A to point B; when, in fact, nurses went to school to provide care to patients and pushing a cart is taking time away from that. When they have robots that can push a cart automatically, they don’t have to walk kilometers, they can spend more time actually caring for people so we get better service; we’re able to provide better care for the patients at a lower cost because you’re not using expensive resources to push a cart around.
In some cases people may say, “Well, why not just use less expensive labor to push the cart?” But it’s not always possible to do that because many medicines are controlled substances. It’s nice to be able to lock the medication in the robot, it does the delivery and only nurses handle the medication. It can also be used for a number of other applications: everything from delivering food and sterilized surgical instruments to the surgical suits, linens and taking out the trash.
Audrow Nash: How is this perceived by, say, an elderly person or a small child or someone who’s never seen a robot before?
Daniel Theobald: When we first started working on this problem, the idea of deploying robots in public spaces was a completely new concept that needed a lot of work because – first and foremost – robots have to be safe. But it actually goes beyond that: there are a lot of social conventions that, as human beings, we take for granted. For instance, if you and I were walking down the hallway towards each other, maybe the convention is you walk on the left side I walk on the right side, or vice versa depending on where you’re from. Maybe you want to interact with me. So, how would you do that? You might say something or make eye contact, or you might put up your hand. These are all very subtle social cues that we have adopted as human beings. Ultimately, robots will need to understand some of these social cues too. For instance, if a robot is approaching someone and the person wants the robot to stop, the universal gesture is to put up a hand to get it to stop. If the robot isn’t able to understand those gestures then people aren’t going to have a favorable impression of robots.
What’s more, it’s important that all robots start to adopt and follow the same type of understanding in their interactions with human beings.
The other aspect, of course, is safety and ensuring that we put a lot of effort into making the robot safe. One of the things that Vecna’s robots do is, when they sense the environment, they don’t just sense whether or not there’s an obstacle. When I say obstacle that can mean a wall, a piece of furniture, a human being, a cart, a wheelchair; whatever. Treating a human being and a chair equally doesn’t make sense, although that’s what most robots do right now. It’s very important to be able to distinguish a moving object from a non-moving one and, ultimately, a human from a moving but non-human object, so that we can interact with those objects safely and appropriately.
One of the problems with some delivery robots is, because they need to be safe, they drive very slowly all the time, because they don’t know if there are humans around. The only safe assumption is there must be humans, so I need to drive very slowly. Our robots are able to sense when there are people around by visually detecting human beings and then reducing their speed to a socially appropriate and safe level, given their presence. But when there are no humans around, they’re able to move much faster. This allows the robot to move as fast as possible, safely, in any given situation.
Audrow Nash: Human-robot interaction is major design consideration. Can you just talk a bit more about that and how do we generally design robots with humans in mind?
Daniel Theobald: There are a number of important principles there but the most important one is to get the robot into the hands of human beings as quickly as possible. Because engineers think about things differently than normal people and, even if they thought the same way, through the process of developing the robot you gain certain knowledge that obscures or makes it difficult for you to have a fresh perspective as if you were seeing the robot for the first time. It’s very important to bring in outside users who haven’t been exposed to the technology and see how they respond to it, because you learn a lot about what works, what’s intuitive, what makes sense for the humans and what you have to instruct them about. Anything you have to explain to them was probably not designed particularly well. Starting that feedback loop is very important.
What we’d like to say is that Vecnas fail early and fail often. Failure is a very important ingredient to success and, if they’re afraid of failing, people will often spend way too much time and money solving the wrong problem, because they want something that’s perfect and polished and finished before they show it to somebody for the first time. All that means is you’ve spent about 90% of your time chasing the wrong problems. What I really encourage people to do is the minimum viable product; get the crudest, most basic thing that somebody can start playing with, get it into their hands and start getting feedback as early as possible in the process. Because the problems you think are super important probably aren’t the problems that are important to them and, by watching them interact with the technology, you’ll very quickly learn what the real challenges are and be able to focus on those.
Audrow Nash: Can you talk a bit about establishing standards for different robots with different industries?
Daniel Theobald: The biggest obstacle to the adoption of our robots, or really any robots right now in buildings, is, what I broadly classify as, building integration. The robots need to be able to use the same elevators, the same doors and the same security systems as human users in those environments. Because it didn’t exist, at Vecna, we had to develop our own approach to integrating with elevators. You’d think that elevators would be able to communicate through the internet, but we’re not there yet. We’re working with elevator companies to establish those standards but, for now, we had to build our own elevator integration box.
It’s a piece of hardware that actually goes into the elevator closet, wires into the system and allows our robot, or any robot, to call an elevator to a floor, hold the door open, select which floor it wants to go to, etcetera. We like to share that with other companies and organizations because there’s no value added in having everybody build their own approach to integrating with elevators. If everybody comes up with their own solution then you’re only going to be able to have one type of robot in any building, because a different type of robot won’t be able to use the elevator integration solution that the other company provided.
It’s very important for us, as an industry, to understand that sharing and collaborating on these types of standards benefits everybody. It reduces the friction to robotics adoption, meaning that it will be more cost effective for customers to buy robots, which means that there will be more robots and that benefits everybody.
That’s just one example, there are numerous examples where collaborating on standards is important. The computer industry would not be where it is today if every single computer operated differently. If you had to buy software only from the company, that you bought the hardware from, the internet wouldn’t exist; the ability to download software from multiple vendors and app stores, that wouldn’t exist.
The reason that these industries have flourished is because of collaboration. We can create a new device, we can publish a programming standard for it and then a company can go and write software; they can build the apps. It’s important to realize that robotics is 95% software. We tend to think of robots as hardware, as devices, but, at the end of the day, the value is in the software, it’s in the applications. If you look at the amount of time and cost spent, overall, on hardware in the long term, right now, that often represents the biggest investment, because we’re not actually out there developing a lot of different applications for the robots.
Ultimately, the hardware will become a commodity and all of the time and money and effort will be spent on creating new applications for the platform, and that’s all going to be software. There’s a real opportunity for companies to start to focus on, not trying to reinvent the wheel, not building new hardware platforms, but building great new applications for existing hardware. That can accelerate your time to market as a robotics company. Don’t try and start from scratch, build on existing things to provide unique value that somebody else hasn’t already provided. That’s what will move the industry forward quickly.
Audrow Nash: Would you tell me a bit about Mass Robotics?
Daniel Theobald: We learned a number of these lessons over the years and some of the frustrations that we ran into encouraged us to start to help the industry to organize. I started to reach out to numerous CEOs of robotics companies, particularly in the Cambridge Massachusetts area in the United States, near MIT and Harvard, because that’s where we were. As I started to meet these CEOs, it became even clearer that there was a missing piece. We weren’t a mature industry, we didn’t collaborate effectively, we weren’t sharing standards, we weren’t sharing technology, where appropriate. There was no organization in Massachusetts that was the right place to do that.
Collaboratively, we came up with the concept of Mass Robotics. Mass Robotics is really a play on mass adoption – where there are lots and lots of robots – although it works nicely for Massachusetts as well. The main idea is that we want mass market adoption of robots. One of the goals is trying to overcome, as an industry, the many hurdles that are preventing that from happening as quickly as possible.
We don’t need the 20-30 years that it took for the computer industry to become really mass market and consumer focused. We can take the lessons learned from that industry, benefit from them and accelerate the mass market adoption of robotics by paying attention to some of those issues. Again, a big one here is standards.
There was really no efficient mechanism for promoting and sharing standards in the robotics industries. There are a lot of organizations out there but each has a very specific focus and the main goal of Mass Robotics is to move the industry forward as a whole. That’s a lot about reducing risk, and reducing risk for investors is a really big one.
One of the issues is the shiny object problem, where technologists invent cool applications for robots, but it’s not really where the economic value is. One of the main focuses of Mass Robotics is bringing the real consumers, the real users of the robotic systems, to the table and they say, “Here’s what we could use help with from automation.”
The reality right now is that robotics has to borrow its technology from other industries. We’ve been fortunate because of the cell phone industry, and others that have helped move things like accelerometers, sensors and small cameras forward. But there is still a huge gap in terms of products that are specifically designed to be used on robots. Sensors are a great example. While the Kinect sensor was great – the structured light sensor that is used on home video games – because it had low cost, in many ways it was not quite good enough for a lot of the applications people would want.
The next option is about 10 times as expensive but is more precise than we really need. We’re establishing the robotics industry together as a group, going to the sensor manufacturers, the light and camera manufacturers, and saying, “Here’s the product we really need as an industry.” It can allow the robotics companies to focus on solving problems, rather than trying to hack around the limitations and sensors. It also allows prices to come down because, as more and more companies are able to start buying the same types of sensors and not having to reinvent the wheel, it allows them to focus on solving real problems and providing real value to humanity.