It's like Android... for robots
BOW wants developers to unleash the hidden potential of robotics
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Today we bring you a startup with a compelling vision for the future of robotics.
Can they pull it off? Scroll down to read all about BOW.
But first, a few interesting bits of news worth knowing about:
Andreessen Horowitz is to open its first international office, here in the UK. An apparent focus on crypto has raised a few eyebrows, but let’s see what they do when they actually get here.
Startup lobbying group Coadec has rebranded as The Startup Coalition, definitely a more straightforward ‘does what it says’ name
Tickets for Good, a startup we profiled back in February, is clearly ‘loving angels’ as it yesterday announced none other than Robbie Williams as its biggest investor. To keep up with all the news you need to know from startups we’ve profiled, get stuck into our Startup Tracker.
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BOW wants developers to unleash the hidden potential of robotics
Robotics isn’t quite as buzzy a field as A.I. right now, but as we’ve seen in this newsletter in the past, startups are working hard to push the boundaries of what machines can help us to achieve.
BOW is a startup working on something I’m surprised doesn’t seem to have been tried yet: “universal software that can control any robot from any manufacturer, from anywhere in the world,” as co-founder and CEO Daniel Camilleri puts it.
The way things tend to work in the robotics industry now is that while third party developers can write code for a robot, that code can’t be reused for other models of robot. And that leads to companies selling niche software for specific robots.
“There are no app stores available; you have to create a company around the solution that you just built,” Camilleri says.
“There's a lot of risk upfront. There's a lot of learning, and there's a lot of risk at the very end of it. Which means that you have a very small number of roboticists today, because it's just not that attractive.”
Opening up robotics
Camilleri’s big idea is to create a software platform that allows the same code to work on any robot, opening up a much larger market for developers. And it could help create new market opportunities for robot manufacturers too.
“It's about not reinventing the wheel every time…. Most of the time [developers] are just spending their time reimplementing what others have created, because they have to do that for it to work with their robot.”
Think of Sheffield-based BOW’s offering as a kind of ‘Android for robots’, if that phrase isn’t a little confusing. Indeed, Camilleri’s vision includes an app store where software for any robot can be bought. The software can be run remotely too, rather than having to be installed into your robot’s memory.
“Currently, robots have very limited computational capacity on board. So when you're creating an application, there are a lot of iterations of optimising your software in order to get it to run on the robot itself.
“But because we provide very low-latency communication between the cloud and the robot, it means you can run massive applications, very complex computations in the cloud, controlling the robot in real time.”
If BOW achieves its aim and sees wide adoption, the impact on the robotics industry could be huge. To this end, Camilleri says educational institutions will get the software development kit (SDK) for free, seeding skills at an early stage in potential users’ careers.
The startup will then address the global population of software developers, by one estimate set to reach 28 million next year, with the aim of getting them interested in the robotics market.
“Even if we convert just 1% of that 28 million we would have a majority share of the robotic software market,” Camilleri enthuses.
How does the tech work?
Camilleri explains that BOW is creating software drivers compatible with specific robots’ official SDKs. These drivers will allow a robot to work with software coded via BOW’s platform.
At a later stage, Camilleri hopes manufacturers will be keen to support BOW’s tech right out of the box.
I’m surprised no-one has already done this, and so is Camilleri. The secret of BOW’s progress so far, he says, is in its IP around abstracting the data about what you want a robot to do from its baked-in physical attributes.
Rather than telling a robot specifically what it should do (‘move your arm’, for example), BOW’s approach is based on objectives. For example, an objective might be to ‘pick up a cup’ or ‘serve a plate of fruit.’
“We have implemented a couple of layers where the robot can, based on its body, infer the actions that it needs to do,” Camilleri says.
BOW’s remote control tech that allows cloud-based software to operate robots is also an important part of the picture.
Camilleri shows me a video of a robot in Sheffield being controlled by someone more than 3,000 miles away at a conference in Toronto, with the aid of a Meta Quest headset. It’s an impressive feat - particularly over conference wifi.
“The data structure that we've created is not only universal, but it's data efficient, which means that the amount of data that we're transmitting back and forth is pretty small. And it means that we can do this by being connected directly to the robot.
“And it's an important switch from the generally accepted approach, where the operator controlling the robot is working within a simulation, and then the environment of that simulation is being updated from sensor data coming from the robot,” explains Camilleri.
“Because we've achieved such low latency, you can be connected directly to the robot. And so the level of immersiveness is very high, and that robot becomes your body. It's that easy to use and that intuitive to use that there's no translation needed between the actions that you would do, to the actions that the robot does.”
Background and team
Camilleri studied Electrical and Electronics Engineering at the University of Malta, before moving to the University of Sheffield for a master’s degree in Computational Intelligence and Robotics.
He then remained at Sheffield, researching how insights from psychology and neuroscience could be used to help robots learn more like humans do.
The idea for BOW came when Camilleri’s research required him to work with a new robot and he realised how much effort would be required to re-write his code. Taking a more biologically-inspired approach, he worked on a prototype that showed commercial potential, which took him on the path to spinning out from the university.
Camilleri has co-founded BOW with his former university supervisor Tony Prescott (chief scientific officer), along with Richard Waterstone (director of business development), and Michael Szollosy (chief operating officer).
BOW is two weeks from the an initial launch of its SDK for Python and C++ on Linux and for three robots: Nao, Pepper and Tiago. If you’re interested in giving it a try, you can register your interest on the website.
A full public release of the SDK will follow.
In the meantime, the startup is also working on projects around the use of robots in hazardous environments such as bomb disposal or nuclear decommissioning.
Go deeper on BOW
Much more information about their investment, vision, competition, and challenges:
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