November 2004

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Lloyd SpencerEMAIL INTERVIEW -  Lloyd Spencer & Ken Sinclair

Lloyd Spencer, President and CEO CoroWare, Inc.

Lloyd Spencer has more than 20 years of experience in the computer and networking industries in engineering, product marketing, business development, and sales management.  His expertise spans a spectrum of service provider industries and technologies, including distributed network computing and embedded systems hardware development.

Using Robotics in Building Management 

 Sinclair:  How can robotics improve the way commercial buildings and properties are managed?

Spencer:  First, mobile service robots can offer building maintenance departments an excellent means of monitoring temperature and humidity more consistently.  One of the problems encountered in large food warehouses is the variability of airflow and temperature in a vegetable and fruit or frozen food warehouse, resulting in inventory damage.  Even when a cooling subsystem begins to fail, it is not usually detected because sensors are not evenly distributed throughout the warehouse.  An environmental robot could avoid this problem by autonomously traveling in the warehouse night and day, collecting temperature, humidity and position data, and store the information on a remote system for later analysis.

We can extrapolate these benefits to other large buildings, such as department stores or office buildings.  Mobile service robots can monitor the efficiency of heating and cooling systems in real-time by roaming throughout a building, then reporting the results to maintenance personnel.  It's often the case that one area of a building is too hot, even as people are wearing sweaters in another.  Robots can help correct this by getting climate information back to the people who can correct the problem. 

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Sinclair:  How would robotics improve the safety and efficiency of building security?

Spencer:  A mobile service robot can easily perform passive security monitoring, sending video surveillance information back to an internal security office.  By using a mobile service robot for security monitoring, you can minimize or eliminate the “dead zones” that wall mounted cameras frequently miss.  Adding more advanced vision recognition software components to this very same device lets that mobile security robot take a more active security and management role by detecting and reporting inventory that was damaged or had fallen into an aisle.

There's also the safety of security personnel to consider.  Mobile surveillance robots can detect anomalies and send a page or text message to a central security console.  Video capabilities can actually enable security staff to see the anomaly and assess its risk before sending guards into an unknown and potentially dangerous situation. 

Sinclair:  What infrastructure components need to be in place?

Spencer:  The most important component needed for a mobile service robot is wireless communications.  Today, the most cost-effective wireless networking technology is 802.11G, better known as WiFi.  Wireless communications is not only necessary for gathering data and video information from the mobile robots, but also for remotely controlling the robot in real time.  In the past, mobile robots have been controlled by radio control, similar to that used by model car and plane hobbyists.  By taking advantage of WiFi networking and communications protocols based on TCP/IP, mobile service robots can be controlled and monitored more reliably and securely.

 The next most important group of components comprises localization, mapping and navigation.  These robotics components are important because they let the robot know where it is, its relative position in a building or outside, and the most efficient path to get to its destination.  Global Position Satellite (GPS) and digital terrain maps can be very effective for outdoor use, but affordable indoor equivalents are still being evaluated by robotics and systems integration specialists.

Sinclair:  How should a building management team proceed with using robotics today?

Spencer:  First and foremost, it is critical that the building or warehouse management team prioritizes its needs.  Are temperature and humidity fluctuations causing inventory spoilage?  Are theft and property damage of highest concern?  After assessing the needs, invite a systems and robotics integration specialist such as CoroWare to listen to your concerns, provide some feedback on your assessments, and offer some potential solutions.

After you have considered your alternatives, work with your systems and robotics integration specialist to deploy a small and affordable proof-of-concept system that can demonstrate a workable solution on a small scale.  Once this is done, you can deploy the solution using internal resources, or with the assistance of your systems and robotics integration specialist.

Sinclair:  What's CoroWare's approach to helping customers deploy mobile robotic solutions?

Spencer:  In selecting the most appropriate system, we stress using off-the shelf platforms where they exist and where they're the best available technology for the job.  So we might find ourselves recommending platforms from Active Media, iRobot or RoboDynamics to use as the foundation of the mobile service robotic application.

If we can't find anything on the market that works for a particular application, we'll help customers create their own platforms using readily available components.  That means if we find that there's no appropriate platform, we'll work with our client to design and develop a mobile service robot using commercial off-the-shelf components and integrate them together with the desired application. 

This way, the customer gets the best of available scenarios.  Off-the-shelf components to keep costs down and custom development to fine-tune the end result. 


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