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Terminator Town USA: Rise of the everyday robot

ReconRobotics in a simulated barrier situation.
Source: ReconRobotics
ReconRobotics in a simulated barrier situation.

Police in suburban Minneapolis recently received a call about a suicidal man who had fired a handgun inside his residence. Plymouth police officers surrounded the house, but "weren't sure if he was alive, dead, sleeping, passed out or waiting to ambush us," recalled Sgt. Chris Kuklok, SWAT team leader.

Rather than face the potentially fatal consequences of sending SWAT officers bursting through the front door, they deployed their game changer: the Throwbot XT, a 1-pound, 8.2-inch-long robot. After chucking it through the garage service door, police were able to see everything within 100 feet. The officers steered the machine remotely through the rooms and hallways. After a little while, the SWAT team could stand down: The monitor that connects to the Throwbot via its antennae showed the man was dead.

It was another job well done by the Throwbot, and by passing along surveillance intelligence that before its existence would have required an intricately planned SWAT operation, the $14,000 machine not only spared lives, it saved taxpayers thousands of dollars in manpower and clean-up costs.

"It costs a lot of money to have tactical teams deployed for hours," said Kuklok, who has been using the Throwbot almost since its inception in 2007. "We probably would have done more property damage—broken windows, door breaching; opening a door and tossing a robot in saves time and money."

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Resembling a tiny black dumbbell with a narrow tail, the Throwbot doesn't induce the fear evoked by its Hollywood cousin, the Terminator. But like the menacing machines that science fiction has long predicted will take over the planet, the Throwbot grows smarter over time, gaining a little more autonomy with each iteration.

ReconRobotics used in a simulated military training exercise.
Source: ReconRobotics
ReconRobotics used in a simulated military training exercise.

It also makes a good amount of money for its manufacturer, ReconRobotics, a $22 million, 50-employee firm based in Edina, Minn. ReconRobotics—which has sold more than 4,000 of its quiet, rugged spybots to SWAT teams, the military and special ops groups around the globe—has tapped a roughly $2.5 billion niche in one of the world's most lucrative industries: robotics.

Since the first industrial robot was installed at a Trenton, N.J., GM plant in 1961, scores of bots power the manufacturing world, performing work that's too dangerous, mundane or exacting for humans. These machines glide through the labyrinthine warehouses of Staples and Amazon.com and tower over assembly lines, many working within cages to minimize the maiming of their human counterparts.

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According to the International Federation of Robotics, 2012 was a banner year for sales. About 160,000 units were sold for $12 billion, the second highest number ever recorded. "All expectations are that the industrial robots market will continue to expand at around 9 percent to 14 percent per year for the rest of this decade," said Frank Tobe, owner and publisher of The Robot Report, which tracks the industry.

Targeting big buyers—namely automakers, but any sector demanding automation—dozens of startups in the U.S., Europe and Japan are capitalizing on new enablers like open source software and the cloud to develop code and hardware to make industrial bots safer and more efficient. Industrial Perception and Universal Robotics, young companies in Silicon Valley and Nashville, Tenn., are working on vision systems that will allow bots to recognize shapes in 3-D. Such an ability could be used to help unload delivery trucks.

Indeed, in the grand vision of the entrepreneurs of the machine rise era, robots won't only enter our home when thrown through a window or door by police. "For service robots, consumer products is where the growth will be the greatest in numbers: robotic floor cleaners, lawnmowers, etc.," said Tobe. They're also creeping into kids' playrooms: Romotive, a two-year old startup in San Francisco, is targeting kindergartners with technology that turns iPhones and iPods into a kid-programmable robot named Romo.

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"We're very motivated by the idea of building something that science fiction always promises but hasn't yet come to fruition," said Keller Rinaudo, Romotive's co-founder and CEO. Romo—essentially a docking station with wheels—can be trained to detect its owner's face, perform a series of dance moves and even fall in love. Getting kids excited about computer science via robotics is one underlying motive for Romo, but priced at $150, he also has the potential to reach a big new demographic. "Why not leverage the hardware that people already have at home and build a robot around that platform at a cost that is totally disruptive?" said Rinaudo, who has 18 employees.

Romotive, which completed two rounds of Kickstarter funding and is buoyed by angel and venture capital backing, is hoping to turn profitable this year. It just landed a deal with a national retailer to start selling its bots—which cost less than $50 to make—this fall.

Romo may not exemplify the Jetsonian ideals we hold when it comes to servile bots—he can't fetch anything but songs from your iTunes library—but billions of dollars are being spent on service robots toiling away in places undesirable for people: war zones, space and natural disaster sites.

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Unsurprisingly, the government is a big supporter, namely through the DoD's research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). "A perfect application for robots is a case where you've got an environment where you really can't send in a person, but you need to have some kind of stand-in," said Brian Gerkey, CEO of the Open Source Robotics Foundation. The nonprofit group provided the simulation software for DARPA's Virtual Robotics Challenge, where engineers are vying to build robots capable of dealing with disasters like the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.

"The technology doesn't currently exist to address what turns out to be an infrequent but very high impact problem," Gerkey said.

While first-responder robots in this sense haven't yet arrived—iRobot, the $436 million company best known for its Roomba vacuum cleaner, sent its Packbots to Fukushima to survey the insides of the damaged nuclear plant—other service droids that started out as DARPA-funded research are already at work, mostly via university technology transfer programs.

Take ReconRobotics' Throwbot, whose underlying tech was first developed by engineers at the University of Minnesota. The researchers were trying to address tactical problems that arose in the aftermath of the Black Hawk Down incident of 1993, when members of the Somali militia shot down two American helicopters in Mogadishu, leaving a group of soldiers stranded.

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"These soldiers, stranded in an urban area, had no way of finding anything out about their surroundings," said Alan Bignall, ReconRobotics' founder and CEO. When Bignall, a serial entrepreneur looking for his next gig, found the students' prototype in 2006, the funding ties with DARPA had ceased. "I spoke with the Army who had been testing it at the time and decided it was something we should bring to market," said Bignall. "But no one was waking up and saying 'I need to buy a 1-pound robot today.' We had to create the market as we were growing the product."

Rather than continue testing with the Army, Bignall began speaking with SWAT commanders around the nation and, with his crew, hand-built 30, then another 70, robots. "I wanted to get a hundred of these into 100 different hands," he said. "I knew we didn't have a business if we didn't get the SWAT guys to buy it."

Word spread about the two-wheeled, tube-and-tail bot that could be dropped 30 feet down or thrown 120 feet laterally and not sustain much damage. Companies like iRobot had been selling situational surveillance robots for years, but they were the stuff of bomb squads—heavy, complex to operate, and designed to navigate rugged, outdoor terrain. The Throwbot fits inside tactical vests.

After the first generation sold out, ReconRobotics raised a series of angel equity so it could equip its products with infrared capability—SWAT customers' most urgent request—and eventually, hired a local contract manufacturer to ramp up production.

The company, whose products are still made in Minnesota, turned profitable in 2011. About 1,500 of its machines are being used in Afghanistan, in reconnaissance missions as well as at vehicle checkpoints, where soldiers can maneuver the bots under cars from 300 feet away.

The company, which sells its products in 34 countries, sees imminent growth internationally, targeting military, police and counterterrorism organizations. But like many sci-fi futurists, Bignall sees his robots someday infiltrating other sectors like farming, where, equipped with sensors, they may be able to sense fertilizer levels in crops. In the case of growing corn, the droids would roll up and down the rows, testing the soil and injecting nitrogen where necessary.

"We started this business in the worst economic climate since the worst depression," said Bignall, adding that the cost efficiency of his products is particularly attractive to folks handling shrinking military and police budgets (ReconRobotics also makes a stripped-down Throwbot that costs less than $5,000 for non-SWAT police officers). "It's been very rewarding to see it grow even in that time."

—By Maggie Overfelt, Special to CNBC.com.

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