A disruptive technology

With no formal background in engineering, but a passion for design and aesthetic principles, Ross Robotics CEO Philipp Norman has developed a unique modular, scalable, and reconfigurable “multi-mission” robotics platform. The former artist talked to London-based journalist Ed Targett.

by Ed Targett, freelance journalist based in England

Have you always been interested in technology?

I was a typical child: tinkering and taking things apart. I had a definite interest in mechanics – I even made things for people at school like hi-fi speakers on order and amplifiers – but my real interest was painting, writing, drawing, music, sculpture, and ceramics. As an adult I am at best an informal engineer; all I have had to draw on was my experience as an artist.

I’ve always been interested in form, patterns, textures, rhythms. The interplay of forces in the natural world and the beautiful forms that these forces can produce. And at one point in my education I studied fluid mechanics. As an artist I found this interesting – that under the beauty lie definable relationships and under those, numbers.

How has your artistic background informed your creative process?

Artists spend a lot of their time in a state of misery trying to work out things, and they put up with a lot of failure. In most other walks of life, that’s not permitted. If you’re in business, in banking, in engineering, you can’t have all that failure. Artists will scrap 98 percent of their work but be very happy when that 2 percent really works.

I started out by drawing a lot of my designs in pen and paper. When I was introduced to Solid Edge I found it very easy to learn. I got addicted to the ideas in my head, because I could visualize and work on them in 3D. It was like putting nitro fuel in something! Ideas came alive in 3D… 

 

What is the basic intended purpose of your robots?

We have developed a number of technologies that make reconfigurable modularity possible. What seems to have been missed in the robotics world, despite the increasingly mature array of technologies out there, is something that brings them together in a compelling format. It hasn’t been considered sexy in robotics to make platforms; it was much sexier to write AI or make very clever sensors.

I came within an ace of selling a license to exploit the modular system – that I had designed almost as an intellectual exercise – as a construction toy to Hasbro. That didn’t happen. I then dropped the whole project for about six months. However a half-brother working at MIT suggested that I look closely at robotics. His suggestion was that modular robotics was an interesting area to get into and that my system might be what was required…

So it is ultimately a very flexible platform?

They are capable of being used for surveillance, in the oil and gas sector, defence. We have designed and patented repositionable connectors, so you can snap data and power cables onto the robots even while wearing thick gloves, for example. We see huge potential in the field; for bomb disposal, search and rescue, or on oil rigs. Say you’re a fireman and you need to snap an air sensor or a camera onto a robot fast; with our products you can just plug and play. It’s basically kids’ play, but it’s also very sophisticated. So, we’re trying to bring these two elements together: kindergarten meets cutting-edge technology.

Our system is a platform that can adapt to purpose. The closest analogy we can think of is the iPhone. Applications which change the function are in our case sensors in modular format such as cameras, LiDAR scanners and so on, as well as tools like manipulator arms, abrasive jet cutters and the like. Another kind of app is artificial intelligence.

So, we’re trying to bring these two elements together: kindergarten meets cutting-edge technology.
Philipp Norman, CEO Ross Robotics

What the modular and reconfigurable platform does is make it extremely easy, quick, and cost-effective to configure a robot system to perform the desired task and to operate in the required environment. This is a disruptive technology because it will make no sense to go back to the conventional approach to robotics once the library of apps starts to build, and customers can obtain what they require in minutes rather than years.

Where are they currently operating?

One, heavily modified, is operating at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Some parts – when it is operating – are no-go zones for living creatures, either because of the background nuclear radiation or because of the magnetic fields which are, as far as I am aware, the strongest on the planet.

Our robot system is largely non-metallic and non-magnetic as it is built using a hybrid plastic/non-magnetic metallization process and can operate in extremely harsh conditions such as these. CERN have performed some specialized engineering work on our system to further harden it for their environment, equipping it with cameras, LiDAR scanners, and a number of other specialized sensors.

2015-11-17
Ed Targett, freelance journalist based in England
Picture credits: Andrea Artz

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