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Is Your Robot a Tool or a Platform?

Examining the difference between classifications of robots

May 27, 2023

The Fremont Robotics team had the opportunity to participate in the Robotics Summit in Boston this May 2023. The conference was a fantastic meeting of serious robotics companies solving real problems, and we look forward to next year's show.

Personal service robots are a prominent trend and the Robotics Summit featured several innovators in this area. These robots are just coming out of research labs and into the home and workplace. The startups at this show are at the forefront of this transformation.

When we talk about personal service robots, we refer to semi-autonomous machines designed to assist individuals with their daily activities. Some are specialized for the home; others are targeted to the workplace. All of them feature human-centered design and prioritize collaboration over pure automation.  

We see two divergent approaches in the evolution of service robots:

  • Building a Tool: Create a service robot specialized for a few tasks, but excel at executing them efficiently and effectively.  
  • Building a Platform: Build a versatile, general-purpose robot that can be expanded and customized to perform a wide range of tasks.  

Robotic tools are becoming more and more commonplace in the home and workplace. Think of robot floor cleaners like the Roomba, or robotic lawn mowers like those from Scythe Robotics. These robots help humans reclaim time spent on chores. They're highly valuable devices, but they specialize in one task. As an example, if you want your robot lawnmower to also trim shrubs, you need to go back to the drawing board and design a new product.

Building a Platform

Some robotics innovators are taking a different approach: building a platform. Here we'll share some examples from the Robotics Summit and throughts on why this approach is poised for exponential growth.

Designing a service robot that excels at multiple tasks straight out of the box is a formidable challenge. The complexity lies in the diverse range of activities that a service robot may encounter in different environments and with various user preferences. It is unrealistic to expect a single pre-programmed robot to flawlessly handle every possible scenario. However, the solution lies in allowing for customization. By providing a platform that can be extended and tailored to specific needs, users can personalize the robot's capabilities and optimize its performance for their unique requirements. This approach empowers individuals to adapt and modify the robot, ensuring that it becomes a versatile and effective companion in assisting with everyday activities.

One remarkable example of a customizable service robot showcased at the Robotics Summit is "Stretch 2" from Hello Robot. This innovative robot was specifically designed to assist individuals with limited mobility in their daily activities. What sets Hello Robot apart is their extreme user-centered design approach, which involves embedding occupational therapy researchers like Vy Nguyen directly in users' homes for extended periods. This collaborative effort allows occupational therapists to closely observe and understand users' unique needs, leading to rapid iterations in designing new accessories for Stretch. Notably, they have utilized 3D printing technology to create custom attachments for tasks such as brushing teeth, eating, and even addressing itches. This level of customization ensures that Stretch can adapt and cater to the specific requirements of each individual, enhancing its effectiveness as a personalized service robot.

Creating an Ecosystem

Another significant development method for enhancing the capabilities of service robots is granting developers access to Software Development Kits (SDK) to build applications that enable robots to solve a broader range of problems. One notable example of this approach, showcased at the Robotics Summit, is the Gary Service Robot from Unlimited Robotics.

Gary is an advanced humanoid service robot designed to be useful in various settings, including homes, hospitals, and elder-care facilities. According to Unlimited Robotics CEO Guy Altagar, the key to maximizing Gary's utility lies in opening it to developers. Unlimited Robotics has introduced the Ra-Ya SDK, which empowers developers to create customized applications specifically tailored to address new challenges and tasks. By leveraging the SDK, developers can expand Gary's capabilities and enable it to provide assistance in diverse environments and scenarios.

By embracing this approach, Gary evolves into a versatile and adaptable service robot that can effectively cater to the needs of different industries and user requirements. This highlights the power of collaboration and open development, allowing service robots like Gary to continuously grow and solve increasingly complex problems, ultimately enhancing their impact and potential in various domains.

Final Thoughts

The development of personal service robots is evolving towards strategies that acknowledge the limitations of out-of-the-box solutions. By providing a flexible toolbox and opening up to extension and customization, developers are empowering users to personalize their robots and optimize their performance according to specific needs. The toolbox approach allows individuals to adapt and modify the robot, ensuring its versatility and effectiveness in assisting with everyday activities. Furthermore, building an ecosystem through software development kits enables developers to create customized applications that expand the capabilities of service robots.  

Examples such as Hello Robot's Stretch 2, and Unlimited Robotics' Gary Service Robot, demonstrate the power of these strategies, showcasing how personalization and collaboration can enhance the impact and potential of service robots in various domains. As the field continues to advance, these strategies will play a crucial role in alleviating the issue of service robots not being able to solve everything out of the box, ultimately leading to more efficient and tailored robotic assistance.

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