Robotics companies merge, aim at high-end business use

Frontline Robotics and White Box Robotics have announced they will merge, with a new robotics series aimed at high-end security and defense uses.

Frontline Robotics and White Box Robotics are merging, the companies announced Tuesday at the RoboBusiness conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is highlighting business uses of robotics.

Frontline Robotics' main product is Robot Open Control (ROC), an operating system for use by teams of collaborative security robots. Fist-sized metal boxes containing the robot control software are used in White Box Robotics latest "server on wheels," part of a 10 PC-bot series. The new White Box 914 PC-bot is powered by a standard PC, with buyers choosing the processor, hard drive and other PC parts used to build the system.

"The capabilities that the merger provides we will first exploit in security applications," said Richard Lepack, chief executive officer of Frontline Robotics, which is based on Ottawa, as he announced the merger.

The two companies and their products are typical examples of the current trend in the robotics industry. The expo floor at the conference is dominated by displays and videos showing soldiers and security guards interacting with robots and unmanned vehicles.

"Airports, nuclear power stations, pipelines and other large high-threat areas are examples where robots can be vital parts of the surveillance system," Lepack said.

Last month, Lepack and engineers at his company, demonstrated collaboration between fully autonomous robots using the ROC system. "When two mobile robots entered a narrow passage from opposite directions one of the robots cleared the passage so that the other one could come through," Lepack said.

The merging companies have been working together since December 2004. Their first collaborate product was presented Tuesday and is similar to White Box Robotics' 9 series.

"The 10-bots have the same basic principles as our earlier robots," said Thomas Burick, chief executive officer of White Box Robotics, which is based in Pittsburgh.

Most of the 10 PC-bot is made from off-the-shelf PC parts mounted on a mobile platform, but while the 9 series was mainly marketed as an entertainment device with CD, DVD, an MP3 player and cameras, the 10 series is aimed at high-end areas such as security and defense.

"It could be used in banks or warehouses," Lepack said, giving an example: "If there's an indication of someone trying to break in through a door; a 10 series robot with telepresence functions could go there and take a look. The images will be sent to a security guard and the intruder will be interrupted and maybe identified."

Other functions that could be fitted to the 9 and 10 series mini motherboard via USB (Universal Serial Bus) ports are applications for facial recognition, speech synthesis, infrared sensors, motion detectors, radiation, gas or chemical sensors.

"I can't leave an electronic store without a handful of gadgets that I want to fit to our robots," Burick said. "PC enthusiasts had a huge impact on the PC's future. I expect the same thing in robotics. There's usually a steep learning curve in robotics but this is plug-and-play with Windows as interface."

Both the 9 and 10 series run on Windows, but will be delivered without that operating system. The 9 series platform costs about US$10,000. Even though the 10 series is not yet in production it will soon be available for orders and will be delivered within 18 months, according to Lepack.

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