Interview with Roberto Guzmán, founder and CEO of Robotnik

Interview with Roberto Guzmán, founder and CEO of Robotnik.

The Spanish Association of Robotics and Automation - AER, publishes this month an interesting interview with Robotnik's CEO, Roberto Guzmán, in which he talks about the present and future of the company, the robotics sector in general and technological trends such as Artificial Intelligence.
Here you can read the full interview.

Roberto Guzmán is a Computer Engineer from the Polytechnic University of Valencia, where he also completed an MSc CAD/CAM/CAE. He has worked as a researcher in universities in Spain and Germany, and has experience as Research & Development Director, before founding Robotnik. In 2002 the company was started in Valencia, where it is still headquartered. It is also present in Korea, Japan, USA, France, Germany and Italy, among many other countries.


AER- Robotnik celebrates its 20th anniversary at a time of consolidation as a reference in mobile robotics worldwide and leader in Europe. As founder and CEO, what reflection would you make of this moment?

RG- Service robotics has been a market mainly of early adopters almost until today and the growth forecasts are very large in different segments. This is evident on a global level, so you have to consider the opportunities with some prudence. The amount of capital that has come in over the last few years has exceeded all our expectations and we think that the near future will be marked by the impact of all these investments.

Europe has a leading position in service robotics, has the largest number of companies and is a pioneer in many applications. However, investment in Europe is lagging behind that in Asia or America. Europe must react if it wants to maintain a position in this market.

AER- One of the strongest trends today is the use of robots for inspection and maintenance tasks, a development that has a direct and positive impact on the area of workplace safety. What future can we expect for collaborative robots?

RG-IFR statistics indicate that this segment grew by 35% in 2021 and is expected to grow by 45% between 2021 and 2022. The number of robots is low compared to transport, cleaning or hospital robots, but the forecast is good and we can expect a future of growth in the coming years. Right now the market is more inspection than maintenance, but this will change with the progressive introduction of mobile manipulators.

"Europe has a leading position in service robotics, has the largest number of companies and is a pioneer in many applications. However, investment in Europe is lagging behind Asia or America. Europe must react if it wants to maintain a position in this market."

AER- In the new technological paradigm, Robotnik is betting on 5G with its 5G-ERA project, called to achieve greater autonomy of the equipment with the user at the centre. What other direct benefits would be achieved with this advance? What are the challenges of this programme?

RG-5G technology has great potential to increase the autonomy of a robot, as it allows offloading computing to the cloud and therefore using remote resources that can be shared between different robots. And why does this increase the autonomy of the robot? Because the integration of functions happens in a standard and distributed way. That robot, in order to have a new capability, such as understanding spoken language or finding objects in a hopper (bin picking), no longer has to integrate hardware with specific firmware, as these functions are provided by cloud services. The possibility to easily integrate new AI or ML functions will substantially increase the autonomy of the robot and also reduce its local computing needs.

The project addresses different challenges such as the integration of processes in OSM (Open Source MANO), the realisation of an intent-based network paradigm, the creation of cloud-native network services so that robotic applications can exploit NFV/SDN infrastructures or the accessibility of robotics experimentation facilities to third parties through standard APIs over ROS.

AER-Mobile robots are a growing trend, which will continue increasing in the coming years, as predicted by the World Robotics 2021 report. Within this group, we find AGVs and AMRs, differentiated mainly by their level of independence. Which type of mobile robotics will the market lean towards?

RG- Mobile robots (AGVs) have been present in industry since the 1970s. In 2021, for the first time, more AMRs were sold than AGVs. In the future, the trend is sure to keep moving towards higher levels of autonomy, flexibility and modularity. We will surely move from today's AMR to the connected AMR, all systems will have better connectivity and the extension of capabilities will happen largely thanks to cloud services and software.

"Collaborative robotics is presented as a solution for any repetitive and tedious activity. Those mechanical actions (crop inspection, harvesting, spraying, etc.) will end up being performed by a robot or mobile manipulator."

AER- Robotnik is also concerned about the environment, as demonstrated by the AUDERE project, based on the collection of solid urban waste through an intelligent system. Can this research change the course of Smart Cities?

RG- The AUDERE project focuses on the use of an autonomous mobile robot that can perform both autonomous waste collection and last-mile parcel delivery in residential areas. The automation of these two processes, rather than a change of direction, is a trend in Smart Cities. For example, in the last mile area, there are numerous products under development by companies such as Nuro, Starship, Amazon, JD or Delivers.ai.

 

AER- Medicine, border security, construction, sustainability... Robotnik divides its activity into different areas. Which sector will exploit the advances in mobile robotics to the greatest extent?

RG-It is true that advances are being made in basically all sectors, but for our part, we are currently focused on two industrial verticals: logistics and inspection. In both cases, mobile robotics has proven to be an excellent working tool for automating processes. What the market analyses say is that the sector that is best exploiting the advances in mobile robotics and will best exploit them in the coming years is logistics.

AER- Has Artificial Intelligence applied to mobile robotics been consolidated?

RG-It is safe to say that it has not been consolidated and that it will surely be the engine of the next revolution. AI is one of the technologies that will give mobile robotics the biggest boost. When a robot integrates AI algorithms, it doesn't need to be given detailed commands to perform an action or make a decision, but is able to work on its own after a 'training' or trial-and-error phase.


Most robots are not intelligent, but in 2022, companies are no longer just looking to automate certain processes, but to automate intelligently. In many cases, a robot capable of carrying weight is no longer enough, as there is a clear trend towards mobile, autonomous robots capable of intelligently collecting, processing and managing data and making the best decisions for production.

AER- As the European market leader in robotics, what is the weight of R&D in Robotnik's business approach?

RG- Basically, next to software, it is the most important department of the company. The continuous investment in R&D is what helps us to develop and improve our products, which in turn have a major software component, so these two departments are necessarily the most relevant in the company.

Participation in R&D projects supported by the European Union also allows us to remain at the technological forefront and to be in contact with other leading companies and research centres. This contact with other research entities and companies enriches us mutually and brings other benefits in terms of knowledge, which is ultimately the greatest value of the company.


El equipo de Robotnik

AER- Last year saw the launch of the Warehouse Robot Lab, focused on learning and testing with the ROS software programming system, for people with prior knowledge of the subject. Why is this framework so important for Robotnik?

RG-Robotnik is a pioneer in Europe in the use of ROS in industrial products. We were working on Player-Stage at the time, and when the developer community migrated to ROS, we migrated with them. Our first modular arms worked with the ROS boxturtle distribution, the first one from Willow-Garage. Today, this framework is the standard for service robotics and it is a competitive advantage that our entire software architecture (more than 500 packages including simulation environments) runs on ROS/ROS2.

AER- Do you develop other educational options for those who are new to robotics?

RG-We direct all ROS training to our partner The Construct.

AER- How can Robotnik contribute to the development of Industry 4.0? Will the customisation of robots become more important?

RG-Robotnik contributes to Industry 4.0 by supplying connected robots and mobile manipulators and will continue to do so thanks to increased connectivity as well as cloud capabilities.

AER- What are the medium-term projects at the Valencian facility, and do you expect an even greater expansion of the international market?

RG-We currently sell 80% of our product outside Spain and this percentage continues increasing. Regarding our facilities, we moved to our new building last March and here we have 7,000 m2 of space. We are working on improving our production capacity to increase our competitiveness in the global environment.

AER- The worldwide presence will be strengthened by attending major events such as the upcoming ROSCon or IROS, which will take place in Tokyo. What can Robotnik contribute to these conferences?

RG-Certanly, these conferences are attended in order to contribute as well as to see other developments and R&D results, both from companies and research centres. Robotnik supports this event as a sponsor, as an exhibitor and, occasionally, also by presenting the results of our work, which, in general, are cases that we think can be useful for the community.

AER- To conclude, how do you value the experience of Robotnik as an AER partner?

RG-Overall, the experience is good. I think that the AER has made an effort to adapt to the needs of service robotics companies and also to those of SMEs, so I think that at the moment it represents the interests of robotics companies in Spain in a useful way.


angel soriano

Interview to Ángel Soriano, manager of R&D projects at Robotnik

Ángel Soriano is the manager of several R&D projects at Robotnik Automation, the leading Spanish company in collaborative mobile robotics.

For more than 5 years, Ángel, who holds a PhD in Automation, Robotics and Industrial Informatics, has been in charge of proposal writing, development and management of several European H2020 projects.

angel soriano

In this talk he tells us about some of the new developments in research in the field of mobile robotics or the close relationship between the work in R&D and the manufacture of robots and mobile manipulators in Robotnik. This is how collaborative mobile robotics is providing solutions today.

R&D Projects

Q. At Robotnik you dedicate a large part of your efforts to R&D work through projects that require mobile robotics solutions.
What value do you consider that R&D projects bring to the robotics sector?

A. These projects play a decisive role for the sector and drive research from the two most important points of view: on the one hand, the researcher who develops the technology beyond the current state of the art and, on the other hand, the industry or party interested in applying this technology in each specific use case is directly involved.
This synergy, created from the beginning of the project, directs and orients the research towards results that are tangible, demonstrable and applicable for the industry and interesting for the further evolution of the autonomous mobile robotics sector.

Q. At the moment, what are the European R&D projects that you coordinate within Robotnik?

A. At Robotnik we are involved in about 30 R&D projects of different nature where we are mainly in charge of the development of robotic platforms and related technology. I personally, participate in the development of several of the projects that Robotnik has open, most of them are European projects within the H2020 framework, but I am in charge of coordinating 4 of them:

FASTER: the objective is to address a series of challenges that arise in dangerous situations for human teams working in emergencies. It is a project oriented to offer and apply new technologies such as aerial and ground robots for rescue operations carried out by emergency teams in cases such as earthquakes, floods or closed buildings.

faster
RB-CAR | FASTER

ODIN: this project is oriented to the integration of technologies for hospital services, mainly through Artificial Intelligence. Here, autonomous mobile robots will provide services ranging from logistics support to interaction with patients and staff.

BACCHUS: we have seen how the incorporation of mobile robotics in agriculture has made significant progress in recent years. BACCHUS seeks to automate high-precision selective harvesting by means of mobile manipulation robotics, trying to imitate the same mechanics performed by an operator, i.e., using two coordinated arms for harvesting.

ODYSSEUS: this is one of the most recent projects we have entered into and is still at a very early stage. It is a safety project aimed at detecting gases or highly explosive elements through the use of sensorized UGVs specifically for this purpose.

 

Q. Autonomous mobile robots play a key role in all these projects. Tell us about some of the Robotnik robots involved and what exactly they contribute.

A. The RB-CAR in FASTER is a vehicle oriented for outdoor rescue operations that can navigate autonomously by GPS to explore unknown areas, create in real time a 3D map of the environment and stream the different sensors it incorporates -thermal camera, stereo camera or 3D Lidar- to the control station where the vehicle operator would be located. In addition, it can accommodate two crew members and can be driven manually.

One of the features is that the vehicle initially stores a secure GPS position, where the control station would be installed, and can be driven while testing the environment. Once something of interest is found, the driver gets out of the vehicle to attend to the situation in question and can send the autonomous robot back to the safe position where it started, i.e. acting as a mule vehicle transporting materials from one point to another.

SUMMIT-XL is another of the autonomous robots participating in FASTER.  Being a smaller vehicle than the RB-CAR, it is oriented towards indoor exploration, although it has also been used in outdoor scenarios. The SUMMIT-XL also offers autonomous GPS navigation and 3D mapping while streaming video from the built-in thermal and steerable RGB cameras.

SUMMIT-XL
SUMMIT-XL | FASTER

At ODIN we use the RB-1 BASE platform. It is one of the indoor mobile robots in charge of moving autonomously around the hospital for transporting goods, monitoring instruments or interacting with staff.

We also have the RB-VOGUI XL robot at BACCHUS which is a bi-arm robot, the RISING at ODYSSEUS....

 

Q. You mentioned that since 2002 Robotnik has been part of more than 60 research projects at the European level. What are the main challenges facing mobile robotics/manipulation in these R&D projects?

A. Autonomous robotics advances as its technological context does. Right now we are in a super interesting moment where 5G, Artificial Intelligence, augmented reality or 3D navigation, for example, allow important progress for robotics. 

In my opinion, these are the 3 main challenges we are facing in project development:

  • Dynamic and unpredictable environments. This is one of the most critical factors when offering a solution applicable to different scenarios or use cases. Here, mobile robotics goes hand in hand with AI.
  • Sensing technology is advancing rapidly but does not yet offer solutions with the precision required for some applications.
  • The technology transition gap between the research community and end users. It is complicated today to offer products or results of these projects that are within the reach of the knowledge and usability of a non-expert user in the field. There is still a long way to go to relax the usability gap between the technology provider and the end user.

By sectors

Q. Collaborative robotics applications have become a determining factor for the growth of companies in different sectors. For example, what is the contribution of robotics in the logistics sector?

A. In indoor logistics, the autonomous organization of warehouses and the internal transport of goods is the order of the day. In addition, the innovation lies in the fact that mobile vehicles that used to move along a fixed track within an assembly line, e.g. Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs), are now Autonomous Mobile Vehicles as developed and manufactured by Robotnik, so they can move freely on the ground, can modify their trajectory and offer greater flexibility. This means that the customer does not need to modify the environment or install anything in particular to do so.

In this field, the fleet of heterogeneous robots that can autonomously coordinate with each other to perform tasks optimally is one of the most in-vogue research at the moment.

RB-1 BASE

One of the most popular robots aimed at indoor environments is the RB-1 BASE. A differential robot that can navigate autonomously moving shelves or goods with a payload of up to 50 kg.

Outdoor logistics is where we find the greatest advances in recent years in terms of the application of mobile robotics. We can already see in operation applications oriented to the last mile -such as AUDERE- with autonomous robots transporting goods or packages during the last part of the route or short journeys for tasks such as picking up garbage, delivering packages, picking up fruits...

The RB-VOGUI platform is one of the most widely used mobile robots in outdoor logistics. It can navigate autonomously and, with a manipulator arm mounted on top of the base, it is able to interact with objects in the environment, picking up garbage from the ground or samples of interest. 

There are other topics, such as road freight transport, where there is still some way to go, although it is true that research is working on it, so results will certainly be obtained in the near future. 

AUDERE
RB-VOGUI | AUDERE

 

Q. And what about the security and defense sector?

A. In this case, robotics tries to offer tools that mitigate the dangers faced by people working in these sectors with two main ideas. On the one hand, sending the robot to the critical scenario first rather than the human, basically because if something goes wrong, it affects the robot and not the human. And on the other hand, to work in the affected area trying not to contaminate it.

 

Q. You also mentioned earlier the great advances that have been made in the agricultural sector.

A. Automation in the agricultural sector is not really new, there are many large machines, trucks, tractors with specialized machinery for harvesting fruits and vegetables.

But the results of these machines cannot be compared with the work done by the operators who are specialized in the field. The operator knows just by looking at the fruit if it is ready to be picked or if it needs more time to be riper. Or which grape is the best for wine production.
This is the birth of precision agriculture in which robotics offers many advantages.
Apart from the obvious advantages such as working without human supervision or working at night, the main idea is to provide autonomous robots with the ability to identify, as humans do, the best option to act with the environment.

As I said before, within the BACCHUS project, the RB-VOGUI XL mounts two manipulator arms to harvest autonomously as a human would. Using one arm as the hand that holds the scissors and cuts the bunch and in the other the final effect that has to act as a hand, picking up the whole bunch.

RB-VOGUI XL | BACCHUS

Ángel Soriano has participated, presented and defended papers in several national robotics conferences such as the annual Jornadas de Automática organized by the Comisión Española de Automática (CEA), and international conferences such as the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) or The World Congress of the International Federation of Automatic Control (IFAC), among others. Author of book chapters in Advances on Practical Applications of Agents and Multi-Agent Systems and Distributed Computing and Artificial Intelligence. Author and co-author of several articles published in high impact international journals such as Robotics and Autonomous Systems, IEEE/ASME Transactions on Mechatronics or Sensors. He has been a researcher at the Polytechnic University of Valencia for more than 5 years, associated with several research projects of the national plan of the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. He has been a senior technician in the Robotics Laboratory of the Institute of Automation and Industrial Informatics of the Polytechnic City of Innovation and has been an associate professor at the Department of Systems Engineering and Automation of the Polytechnic University of Valencia for more than 2 years.