Mobile Robots Are in Our Future — Martin Spencer of GeckoSystems
By Robert Janis
Science fiction novels have talked about robots that do our bidding for generations, but they are now about to enter our daily lives. Industrial robots have become necessary in industry but it is a looming health care crisis that will bring them into the lives of ordinary people. Society can’t take care of the growing population of elderly people worldwide without personal assistance robots.
It is said that by 2019, the world’s elderly population will exceed the number of children under the age of 5. According to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau, this will increase the demand for the shrinking number of caregivers. The number of people older than 65 is also estimated to double to 14 percent of the world’s population by 2040.
The demands that the elderly will place on the health care system and the numbers of people requiring nursing care may become a heavy financial burden on the younger population as a whole. The stress associated with taking care of elderly relatives could cause mental health problems and financial hardship in care taking families.
GeckoSystems, based in Conyers, Georgia, has been aware of this trend and is preparing to meet these needs for 15 years. They’ve created the CareBot™ , a mobile service robot that uses artificial intelligence to help seniors live independently in their own homes and assist caregivers and nurses by performing repetitive tasks, raising the standard of care in nursing homes.
“We started with three computer scientists, one mechanical engineer, one computer engineer and one electrical engineer,” explained founder Martin Spencer. “ We met on the Internet as robot buffs located throughout the United States with over 70 years of combined experience in building robots. We believed that together we might be able to do what none of us could do individually – build a practical mobile robot.” By June, 1997, they had incorporated GeckoSystems in Texas. The company moved to Georgia in 2001.
According to Spencer, the group decided navigation had to be the first priority for a mobile robot. In 1998, the group came up with basic navigation technology that was the first to use scanning sonar. The engineers and scientists combined the sonar with infrared sensing and they also included a new technology at the time: Wi-Fi.
“At that time mobile robots carried huge batteries, a large amount of computer hardware and systems on board just to be able to operate the robot,” said Spencer. “ Using Wi-Fi allowed us to run the robot using an external PC, eliminating much of the on board electronics. Of course now computers are less expensive, much smaller, have higher clock, and require less power so we have returned essential systems to the robot with our BaseBot™ profile.”
Spencer noted that even in the early years of the company GeckoSystems was able to generate interest among robot buffs who wanted to purchase the system for their own use, but they could only be produced profitably in batches of 25 or more. The company was unable to obtain financing for an initial production run.
Over time all of the original founders of GeckoSystems, except Martin Spencer, dropped out of the venture. Spencer continued because of his lifelong passion for robots and because he had become acutely aware of the need for an elder care robot like the CareBot™ on a personal level; he and his wife had taken over daily care for her aging mother. Extensive marketing research showed that there was a growing demand and careful product design showed that a product with a positive return on investment for an average family was feasible.
Spencer not only had the desire, but he had the background to continue the work. He started working in the robotic field in the 1960s. He was involved with the creation of the world’s first bipedal robot at Clemson University in 1987. As an employee of a major corporate supplier he also supported robotics research and development at Georgia Tech, the University of Florida, IBM and Texas Instruments.
Because of his background in the field he had a clear idea of what wasn’t working in these academic efforts. With the help of talented engineers, often young people just out of school who were able to think outside of the traditional box, he created the enabling software and integrated systems that make Gecko’s artificial intelligence robots possible.
“GeckoSystems is primarily a software company,” noted Spencer. “The software is extensible and can be used in a wide variety of applications. Its artificial intelligence capability allows one system to build on the knowledge of the other systems. With this layered capability the potential for future applications is almost limitless.”
What sets the GeckoSystems’ robots apart from the robots being built by other companies and academic institutions is the integrated AI software system. Others create what is known as an “embedded system”, designed for a specific robotic application. Spencer, on the other hand, has created multiple software layers that work independently and synergistically, giving the CareBot™ the ability to talk, navigate, schedule and more depending on the needs of the particular application.
If a new application is needed, such as vital sign monitoring for the health care industry, off the shelf FDA approved systems can be added to the CareBot, networked with on board AI decision making protocols and transferred live via Wi-Fi to professional caregivers.
The different software and technologies that operate a Gecko System’s robot include GeckoNav™, GeckoScheduler™, GeckoTrak™, GeckoChat™, GeckoSPIO™, GeckoOrient™, GeckoImager™, GeckoMotorController™, and GeckoSuper™. The suite of navigation technologies are being marketed independently of the mobile service robots and are being branded SafePath™ navigation systems. SafePath™ can be used on both robotic systems and standard locomotion systems.
GeckoNav™ pilots the robot independently or it can be used with an AI moderated interface called GeckoSteer™ that is used on the SafePath™ wheelchair. GeckoNav™ avoids obstacles and allows the integration of the robot’s sensor systems which can be low cost depth cameras or more sophisticated systems such as LIDAR.
GeckoScheduler™ allows the robot to schedule events and act upon the schedule. It also permits the CareBot™ to give voice reminders to the care receiver. For example, the robot can remind the care receiver to take medication, tell them that a TV show is about to start, etc.
GeckoTrak™ is an infrared system that allows the robot to track and/or seek the location of the care receiver at all times.
GeckoChat™ permits the robot to speak, have a conversation with the care receiver and permit it to verbally remind the care receiver of a scheduled action. GeckoChat is the primary user interface for the care receiver. Advanced AI capabilities now being developed will give the CareBot an even friendlier demeanor. Since the CareBot will be programmed by the family itself, it will be able to converse about topics of interest and tell family stories or jokes at an appropriate time. As the CareBot’s artificial intelligence develops through experience (“learning” is one of the core characteristics of AI) it will develop a broader and deeper interpretation of the available information. Therapeutic behaviors will be enhanced which will be especially beneficial in the treatment of autism or dementia.
GeckoSPIO™ (Sensor/Power Input/Output) is the “robot controller” board. GeckoOrient™ integrates the sensor system to allow it to maintain orientation using an odometer, solid-state compass, accelerometer-based gyroscopes and more.
GeckoImager™ permits the robot to “see” and ascertain its distance from obstacles. The CareBot™ and the SafePath™ wheelchair use 3-D depth cameras. Outdoor applications can use sonar range finding or LIDAR.
GeckoMotorControl™ commands the motion of the robot, making sure it is always running smoothly without sudden stops and starts and within safe operating speeds which are determined by GeckoNav™
GeckoSuper™ is where the higher level functions reside. It coordinates and prioritizes the other AI applications. It is also the level at which more advanced AI functions will be added.
The software that GeckoSystems uses to make a robot perform the tasks for a specific application are layered, just as the biological processes for living organisms are layered and prioritized within the system.
”This is a problem that other companies are having,” explained Spencer. “They are trying to create a single solution that does all things in one package. We’ve discovered that it is best to create separate units that do separate tasks.” Whenever there are upgrades or improvements to available hardware technology, the applicable software is simply upgraded and the advanced technology is integrated into the system. This allows for quicker improvements to the system, eliminates down time due to development of new technologies and makes older units upgradeable and extensible.
GeckoSystems will be offering a variety of robots. The flagship of the company is the CareBot™, which utilizes all the technologies mentioned. It includes four on board computers which run the software. The CareBot™ will be used to provide caregiver assistance, enabling remote monitoring by either a family member or a professional caregiver. The CareBot™ will allow the elderly to stay in their own home as long as possible while allowing family members to look in on them remotely and make sure they are safe and well.
A variant of the CareBot™ will be the SecurityBot™. It can be used like a night watchman to patrol commercial buildings, shopping centers, public transportation areas, warehouses and more. It can also be used to monitor hazardous materials or dangerous conditions. The SecurityBot™ also has government applications. For example, it can be used for surveillance and reconnaissance, serve as a perimeter patrol, and can identify potential hijackers or terrorists at airports, bus and train stations and subways.
Another variant of the CareBot™ is the AscBot™, a mobile robot designed to assist in retail sales. It can be used to place shipments in a storage area, pick out products that have been sold from stock and to identify potential thieves.
The first product GeckoSystems will be marketing to the public is the SafePath™ wheelchair. The wheelchair uses the navigation software suite as well as GeckoSteer™, an AI steering control that helps filter out signals caused by tremor or spasticity that will allow many disabled people who can not now operate a chair on their own to have unprecedented independence and safety.
GeckoSystems also plans to manufacture and market SafePath™ wheelchairs and upgrade kits. A recent report from GeckoSystems that is meant to keep stockholders of the company informed states, “There are approximately 2.2 million people in the United States alone that use a wheelchair for everyday activities. Approximately 15% of those people now use power wheelchairs, but this number is artificially low because many people who would benefit from the use of a power wheelchair are unable to have one. Medicare applications for wheelchairs specifically ask ‘Does his patient have the physical and mental abilities to operate a power wheelchair safely in the home?’ GeckoSystems believes that the availability of SafePath™ enabled wheelchairs along with joysticks or alternative control devices (such as GeckoChat™ , sip and puff, and neural controls) could easily double or triple the size of the power wheelchair market, creating strong OEM demand for the software.”
The report also noted that the upgrade kits for the SafePath wheelchairs can be manufactured quickly and economically because they are made up principally of off the shelf and readily available hardware and electronics.
Spencer estimates that there are currently about 500,000 wheelchair users who would buy a SafePath wheelchair or convert their present chair, and that could garner about $30 million in sales within the first few years that SafePath is on the market.
GeckoSystems is licensing SafePath™ and other technologies and is discussing several joint venture projects. “We recently discovered that artificial intelligence researchers worldwide are looking for physical platforms on which they can do their research,” said Spencer. “ A great deal of research is being done in robot-human interaction and artificial intelligence. We plan to lease a number of our units internationally by the end of the third quarter of this year. We will be working with some notable AI researchers. The results of this research will be a socialized robot which can interact with humans and the technology will be integrated into the CareBot™ and our other platforms.”
GeckoSystems has partnered with ZMP, a Japanese robotics company that focuses on research and education. ZMP has shown an interest in using GeckoSystems technologies to create a collision free wheelchair and collision free robocar. Specific projects will be announced jointly by both companies.
GeckoSystems is also in negotiations to create a joint venture with an established durable medical manufacturer in the People’s Republic of China for the purpose of providing SafePath wheelchairs and CareBot™ products for the Chinese health care system and for export. China also has a serious elder care and nursing home problem.
Spencer envisions that in the not too distant future people will interact daily with appliances and commercial applications that use the technologies developed for the CareBot™. Healthcare will become more streamlined and affordable because of professional CareBot™ helpers. Military and mass transit vehicles will be equipped with collision free SafePath™ navigation.
“Soon, robots will no longer be the stuff of science fiction. They will change the face of technology within the next 10 to 20 years just like the PC changed the way we work in the ’80s,” concluded Spencer.