Sunday, September 27, 2015

"We'll see drones over our heads before Google cars"

Víctor and David Mayoral Vilches. CTO and CSO from Erle Robotics, respectively.

David and Víctor holding Erle-Plane, one of the first fixed wing drones based in
   Linux and low cost.

David and Víctor are brothers, from Vitoria, 23 and 26, at the forefront of the robotics revolution from their company Erle Robotics. Like Wozniak, Jobs and the rest of hardware hackers from 70's, committed to create small and cheap computers to bring computing to the people; Víctor and David, "makers", work with the same philosophy but with free code drones. 

Victor's resume, the CTO, impresses: with a scolarship in Norway, South Korea, United States he made part of the doctorate in the Microbiorobotics center of the Italian government, after he went to the Open Source Robotics Foundation, to work in the second version of the new Robot Operating System (ROS) funded by NASA. Now, with a 2 year experience in his enterprise with all sort of built drones, they started a crowdfunding to put on the market a six-leg spider, the first in the world with an Ubuntu heart. Talking about insects, "erle" means "bee" in Basque.

Víctor, Iñigo Muguruza Goenaga, Patxi
   Mayoral Vilches, Carlos Uraga Pastor, Lander Usategui San Juan, Anita
   Inchauspe Berasain, Irati Zamalloa Ugarte and Alejandro Hernández Cordero
   in the Erle-Spider launching
- Tell me the truth: Are you selling drones in Spain?
- Yes, more and more. Although we keep selling more abroad.

- Who buys a drone?

- Our costumers are quite diverse. Some buy our robots to research, others to introduce theirselves in robotics. There are institutions which buy artificial brains or robots with targets we don't know, whereas others, such as Intel or Samsung, acquire our technology to explore new borders or to obtain inspiration about their new generation processors. It's amazing to see what people is able to do with our robots, so we created an open community, in, which allows anyone accesing directly to us and the rest of the community.

- Robotics already existed before drones, which don't seem much more intelligent...Where's the new, then? 

- The algorithms we use in our drones are relatively complex but, being purist, there's not already a great jump (in intelligence) comparing to other robots. What fascinates people is the fact of conquering the third dimension. Some that was only accesible for a few until recently is, nowadays, available to anyone with some hundreds euros and inclination to "experience". There is a lot of people in Silicon Valley who think that we'll see drones over our heads before the autonomous Google cars fill our roads. Nxt decade will be a continuous change.

- Why devote to drones?

- We're passionate about robotics since we were young, we've always thought that making a robot was something really complex and I suppose this is the reason why we are so attracted. We've spent a lot of time thinking that the future robotics will not be represented by humanoid robots for thousands of euros, but that it will consist on intelligent robots, not very expensive, which would solve little tasks.

Alejandro Hernández Cordero (Chief Robotics Officer),
   Víctor and Carlos Uraga Pastor (CEO) pose for ABB as one of the few startups 
selected internationally. 

With this idea we decided to create our own artificial brain for robots. A brain based on Linux/Unix wich could provide "intelligence" to the incoming robots. Besides, we decided to create it in an "open" way so it can ispire the next generation of engineers to reuse our work for other purposes.

Once we had the first brains prototypes, the growing interest for the flying robots (commonly called drones) was obvius, so we decided that those aerial robots would be the first we'll build. More than a year later, there are hundreds of artificial brains (Erle-Brain) all over the world made by us.

- In your web you show an interesting timeline about how you created the first prototypes, make a robot is longer than have a baby!

- Without any doubt! Create hardware is much more expensive in time and resources than develop software, but was worth it. Create the artificial brain of our own robots allows us to design "ad hoc" the intelligence of each one of these devices, according to the practic application they will develop. We like to remember an Alan Kay's quote which says something like "if you want to seriously consider the software, you should create your own hardware".

- It's clear: cheap robots, open source, open hardware, no black boxes. It's philosophy or business?

- Both! Some years ago there was no technology director in the world who tried to use the words "open source" during a lecture. Nowadays "open source" and "open innovation" are common concepts in some of the most important technological companies in the world. Software and open alternatives allow companies to dominate markets, leaving their competitors without benefits. Android is a clear example. Android is "open source" so it hasn't much sense to create another operative system "closed" for smartphones. This allows Google to manage billions of euros through its app store. All with an "open"platform.

- Do you want to do the same with robots?

- We're working in a similar initiative, with the support of Canonical (Ubuntu). An open store of apps for robots and drones which allows that these automatons could learn new abilities with a simple click. We understand that it has a great potential. Through our artificial brains it`s possible to "extend" the capabilities of these autonomous robots, using apps which substitute an specific need.

Víctor and David receive an award to innovation
 by the IE Business School

- Where are these apps? In Google Play?

- They are apps in a totally diferent marketplace. A new space in the cloud built with Canonical. You can preview some apps here: The apps, in theory, will be suitable with any robot which uses the robots operative system (ROS).

- Does ROS consider the 3 laws of robotics?

- It's a "framework" or a group of tools to develop apps with robots. Although there´s nothing so generic like "the 3 laws" existing and implemented, we start to see systems which limit the behaviour of the robots. For example, our drones can be set to forbid themselves to be sent to some restricted areas, like airports or urban areas.  

Jezz Bezos says that in a future the drones will distribute Amazon packages...

- We think there's a great potential in the use of drones to deliver packages but not necessarily as Mr. Bezos considers it, based in flying robots. The aerial platforms still have a lot of restrictions and there are ambits where the use of other kind of robots is more intelligent.

- What do you see in your crystal ball?

-Robotics have a long way to go and the artificial intelligence which will allow us to reach the technological uniqueness is still far. Considering that, in Erle we see every day how our artificial brains are more powerful and intelligent. We collaborate with many companies specialized in including "deep learning" algorithms in our artificial brains which allow to obtain almost human capabilities in specific tasks...     

Text: Mercè Molist 


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