Since Isaac Asimov first laid out the three laws of robotics in 1942, human safety has been the No. 1 concern of the inventors, innovators and futurists who have pondered our place in the age of robots.
But for robots to be able to ensure human safety, those robots must be able to see humans and recognize them as humans. That’s where Veo Robotics comes in.
The Cambridge, Mass.-based company sees itself as building the brains for robotic systems — the ability for these robots to be aware of their surroundings.
It’s also something that Veo’s founding team — chief executive Patrick Sobalvarro; Clara Vu, the company’s vice president of engineering; and Scott Denenberg, Veo’s senior director of hardware — have spent a combined 50 years addressing through work in robotics, artificial intelligence, sensor perception and industrial automation.
For Sobalvarro, the former president of Rethink Robotics, the eureka moment was discovering that what his previous company’s industrial customers really wanted weren’t small robots that worked the assembly line, but a way for the massive, giant, deadly industrial robots already installed in factories to be able to work with humans more effectively.
“We can override the controls on that robot and allow it to behave in a responsive way to the presence of a human,” says Sobalvarro. “That’s different from what happened in the previous generation of collaborative robotics.”
Sobalvarro compares the multi-million dollar robots currently whirring away on factory floors around the globe to the plow horses agrarian farmers used to furrow their fields in those halcyon days before the industrial revolution.
“In the same way that a farmer might use a plow horse and be confident that the horse will not step on the farmer, we make robots see where people are and then respond to their presence,” he told me.
The problem for manufacturers isn’t that they can’t already replace human workers with machines, the problem is that if they do that, they’ll get pretty crappy products.
“If you do use complete automation and no people in a factory, you end up with an inefficient system and quality problems,” Sobalvarro says. “We want to give you big robots that are very precise and very strong without taking away the intelligence that people bring to manufacturing.”
Big manufacturers think about this frequently, and it was one of the reasons why Veo was able to snag its initial seed funding from Next47, the investment arm for the German industrial manufacturing giant, Siemens, says Sobalvarro.