By Mike Schmidt, AEM Industry Advisor Editor

Every once in a while an emerging technology reaches a point in time when it begins to change the world.

Mobile robotics is experiencing such a moment right now. And as its doing with the Internet of Things (IoT), additive manufacturing, augmented reality and other cutting-edge technologies, the equipment manufacturing industry is starting to see the value in betting on the potential of the technology and leveraging it to meet its ever-changing needs. So much so, in fact, that it now seems like a foregone conclusion that manufacturers will need to either learn how to adopt mobile robotics or risk long-term consequences to their bottom lines.

“You need to invest now, or you're going to be catching up," said Jeff Legault, director of strategic business development at Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC). “And it's hard to catch up with robotics.”

As Legault told an audience of equipment manufacturers in attendance at AEM’s Thinking Forward event held at the NREC facility in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania earlier this month, the manufacturing industry and other skilled trades face a wealth of workforce challenges today. A growing shortage of qualified skilled workers is making it more and more difficult to fill jobs. A high turnover rate prevents organizations from retaining their best and brightest employees. Increased employee wages are negatively impacting profitability. And not only are such challenges becoming more significant with time, their effects are being felt across a variety of industries and disciplines.

In an effort to combat workforce issues, organizations in the skilled trades are beginning to look to technology as a potential solution. And, according to Legault, they are finding mobile robotics to be an appealing option for a few key reasons: 

  • Although mature robotic technology exists to solve most challenges in many industries, it is not commoditized yet. Waiting for the technology to become readily available may take a long time. Therefore, it's important for organizations to invest now and stay ahead of their competition.  
  • The cost to acquire components is low.
  • Companies incorporating robotics into their components are finding competing in this space is a cost-effective business opportunity right now.
  • The landscape is still open, but it's becoming crowded. Waiting too long before investing in robotics might lock companies out on certain technology. 

The Continuum Of Mobile Robotics

One way to describe a mobile robot is embodied artificial intelligence (AI) situated in the real world. Its functions and performance are entirely based on whether or not its body does something useful. And in order to do something useful, a mobile robot requires intelligence. 

“Getting from point A to point B is a complicated process for mobile robots,” said Alonzo Kelly, professor a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's NREC. “They need to be perceptive to understand the local environment, what the obstacles are, what the other drivers will do, and what the pedestrians are going to do. And also, they need to be deliberative – to predict the future and decide what to do.”

All mobile robots are not necessarily autonomous, though. In fact, the best way to consider the idea of robotics is as a continuum spanning from equipment monitoring to fully autonomous operation. According to Legault, along the continuum are a number of points where robotics can be incorporated into equipment manufacturers’ products to provide value to their customers.


Jeff Legault


 “You need to invest now, or you're going to be catching up," said Jeff Legault, director of strategic business development at Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center. "And it's hard to catch up with robotics.”


 “There's a progression that starts with equipment monitoring – a conveyor belt inspection to make sure it doesn't break and operates optimally," said Legault. "Then, you assist the operator, you move into tele-operation, automate vehicles, and then you have autonomous operations. And when you have robots fixing robots, you have a purely 'lights-out' operation.”

The progression is as follows:

  • Equipment Monitoring – Machine failure is prevented, and the equipment’s operator knows exactly when to deal with an issue. The problem is then addressed – not too early and not too late, either.
  • Operator Assistance – An equipment operator is made better, more efficient and more productive, while also positively impacting safety. Operator assistance can take many forms, including collision avoidance, tip-over prevention, truck spotting, and guided operation and training.
  • Remote Operation – An operator “drives” a vehicle, but maintains a line of sight.
  • Tele-operation – Robotics technology has now advanced to a point where it’s possible for equipment to utilize a real-time, three-dimensional model of a scene and allow for the operator to “drive” it like a video game – without a line of sight, and even from thousands of miles away. 
  • Autonomous Vehicles – Vehicles guide themselves without human conduction, but a human may supervise a group of vehicles remotely.
  • Autonomous Operations – Most of the equipment is autonomous, and dispatching software or an operation management software tells each piece of equipment what to do or where to go.
  • Robots Repairing Robots Equipment maintenance and repair of mobile robots is conducted by other mobile robots. 

In the above video, a robotic arm stacks Jenga blocks in a Carnegie Mellon University class on robot kinematics and dynamics. 

Leveraging Mobile Robotics

Mobile robotics isn't something equipment manufacturers can treat like any other business opportunity. It's different, and it requires a unique approach. And how an equipment manufacturer should go about incorporating it into its product offerings depends on which of two potential paths the company wants to take:

  • Internalize the technology into its own operations
  • Launch a start-up robotics vertical

Internalizing mobile robotics allows an equipment manufacturer to maintain strict control of the technology. However, many organizations may find it difficult to hire employees to develop, deploy and manage the technology. Conversely, undertaking an effort to establish a start-up might provide a manufacturer with more ready access to hire talent, but it often means ceding some amount of control of the project to individuals outside of the organization.


 Al Kelly“(Mobile robots) need to be perceptive to understand the local environment, what the obstacles are, what the other drivers will do, and what the pedestrians are going to do,” said Alonzo Kelly, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center. And also, be deliberative – to predict the future and decide what to do.”


“Everyone knows there's a lot of growth going on with (robotics) right now,” said Kelly. “Robotics and its related services are a $135 billion industry right now. We're seeing talent is super scarce right now, and everyone wants in.”

In addition, said Legault, the old business adage “Cash is king” has now been replaced by a new one: “Data is king.” Google, Facebook and Apple know it, and they operate their businesses accordingly. However, he continued, the phrase rings even more true for mobile robotics. And just how adept an equipment manufacturer is at collecting, storing, analyzing and using machine data could ultimately determine how successful it is at leveraging the technology.  

“One robot can collect more than 10 terabyes of data per hour,” he said. “You’re in the data era now, and your company can’t just go into robotics, keep the same IT approach and do things the same way. It just won’t work.”

In order to maximize results, Legault said an equipment manufacturer should consider the following roadmap when considering an investment in robotics technology:

  • Engage with a robotics research and development (R&D) group to conduct a development roll-out. Doing so is of critical importance, as an organization can develop a long-term strategic plan.
  • Engage the robotics R&D group to develop intellectual property (IP).
  • Once the IP is developed, start a company in one of the major regions in the U.S. (Silicon Valley, Boston, or Pittsburgh), and then transfer the technology to a start-up.
  • Oversee the development of an offering and its corresponding product features.
  • Focus on operator assist features initially, then use the lessons learned and data collected during the initial deployment to feed into the development of autonomy.

“If you’re an equipment manufacturer and you want to have autonomous equipment or intelligent equipment, suddenly you are also an intelligent system provider and your devices are all connected to the world, all of the time,” said Kelly. “It’s a whole new world. It’s not just about the robotics. It’s about the information systems that go with it.”

Jeff Legault and Alonzo Kelly were two of several speakers at AEM's inaugural Thinking Forward conference of 2018, held at Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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