Robots are Proliferating; But Who Will Manage Them?

By John G. Spooner  |  Posted 2006-06-26 Print this article Print

Microsoft and others are diving into robotics; CIOs may want to pay attention.

PITTSBURGH—Mobile robots could become businesses' newest recruits in the not-too-distant future, raising questions about who will ultimately manage these machines.

The industry for mobile robots—machines that can interact with their environment and navigate on their own versus fixed-function bots—is emerging from university labs into the mainstream. Many robots are still rudimentary and expensive to manufacture. And companies that make the bots often admit they are still searching for an audience.

However, given that the latest mobile robots can perform jobs that are dangerous, difficult or even tedious for humans—such as cleaning sewer pipes—the number of bots in use is expected to increase steadily over the next five to 10 years, robotics industry executives told eWEEK during the RoboBusiness Conference & Expo June 20-21 here.

"It's not a question of if we're going to work with a robot in the future—it's how many robots?" said Tandy Trower, general manager of Microsoft's robotics project, in Redmond, Wash.

That's because companies are working toward delivering more specialized, lower-cost robots, Trower said.

For its part, Microsoft on June 20 delivered at the show a beta version of its Robotics Studio, a suite for developing software that runs robots, with the goal of assisting robotics at several levels, ranging from student experiments to commercial systems.

Click here to read more about the Microsoft Robotics Studio beta.

"Robots are showing up more in everybody's lives," Trower said. "What we're doing is trying to put in place, through this Robotics Studio, a set of development tools that will make it possible for people to build robotics applications to help further this market's potential."

Evolution Robotics, which also attended RoboBusiness, offers a series of robotics products, including its ViPR (visual pattern recognition) software, which helps robots navigate.

In addition, Evolution Robotics offers a robotics operating system and, in the future, aims to deliver low-cost robotics components that combine the hardware and software to deliver things such as visual pattern recognition.

Given these developments, it may be prudent for CIOs and other senior IT managers to monitor the industry, robotics executives said. But who takes on the responsibility of managing robots remains an open question, since few commercial bots are on the market. Will CIOs manage robots as they do servers? Or will a new position emerge—say, a chief robotics officer?

"The CIO is a natural choice," said Paolo Pirjanian, president of Evolution Robotics, in Pasadena, Calif. "It may require implementing a new role in the [IT] organization to handle robots," Pirjanian said.

Those management roles will be sorted out once robotics executives can cook up products that are seen as essential, not unlike TVs, refrigerators and even, more recently, cell phones and devices such as the BlackBerry.

Robots are cleaning floors—and saving lives on front lines. Click here to read more.

"I think the next wave of trying to take costs out [of businesses] is going to be through robotics," said Aldo Zini, CEO of Aethon, a Pittsburgh company that makes the $1,500 Tug robot for the health care industry. Robots such as the Tug, designed to deliver as much as 500 pounds of goods, can help reduce labor costs, Zini said.

Read the full story on eWEEK.com: Who Will Manage the Robots?

John G. Spooner John G. Spooner, a senior writer for eWeek, chronicles the PC industry, in addition to covering semiconductors and, on occasion, automotive technology. Prior to joining eWeek in 2005, Mr. Spooner spent more than four years as a staff writer for CNET News.com, where he covered computer hardware. He has also worked as a staff writer for ZDNET News.

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