Robotics enthusiasts, or makers as they are often referred to, is a global community that is growing all the time. Along with it, the demand for chipsets specifically designed for robots is also expanding.
Compared to the large number of makers out there, there’s not many chipsets specifically designed for robots – Arduino and Raspberry Pi being the most well known. In fact, a quick search on Google yielded very few results of new chipset makers, and most of them talked of plans but no actual product in existence right now.
Top of the list, however, was Redtree Robotics. The Canadian company is the maker of the Redtree Hydra, which it says is “the definitive chipset for robotics”. The company is still building the chipset – it’s an ongoing process, with the system only available on request to select customers.
Redtree is a startup and going through various funding rounds. “So far we have raised around $300,000,” says Jason Ernst, Redtree’s CTO, in an interview with RoboticsandAutomation.com.
Further rounds of funding will follow, with Ernst saying the plan is to crowd fund the product launch for entry into the consumer/maker space. The company’s crowd-funding page can be found on Angel. Ernst sees crowd funding as “a gateway to into more lucrative and stable contracts with industrial partners in the future”, but these are difficult to win without enough evidence that the product is mature.
It’s not unheard of for large, established companies to buy startups in order to incorporate their technology into their portfolio of products, and there are probably some chip makers interested in Redtree. The top chip makers are certainly interested in the robotics. Qualcomm, for example. The world’s largest maker of chips for mobile phones has developed a strong interest in the robotics market. Its Snapdragon system on a chip (SoC) is a platform designed for “multiple robotics applications”, including mobile robotics.
The company has also launched Qualcomm Zeroth, its first “cognitive computing platform”, a cloud-based service which aims to empower Snapdragon devices with human-like cognitive abilities, such as seeing and hearing, and reasoning. The company is planning to launch Zeroth next year.
Right now, Qualcomm is talking about restructuring its $100 billion company and may break it up into several parts, and acquire companies which will enable it to expand and bring in new innovations. Startup companies like Redtree could be on its shopping list.
But for the time being, Qualcomm and others are competitors, although Redtree would see itself as being more analogous to companies that have become well known in the maker community, at which the Redtree Hydra is primarily aimed.
“The Redtree Hydra is a computer platform for robotics that brings enterprise robotics features to everyone,” says Ernst. “It will open up robotics to a huge group of people to which building a robot was previously too difficult.
“It’s similar to something like a Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Beaglebone Black and so on, with a few key differences. The Redtree Hydra is not just hardware, it is also software, communications and a cloud service. It’s built for robotics.
“The other systems have general purpose and fixed I/O. All of the I/O on our system is reconfigurable. This means sometimes the pins can be CANbus, sometimes the same pins I2C, digital, analog, and so on.
“This makes the platform extremely flexible. It is also modular. It has more I/O pins than many competitors, and is broken out into up to four I/O cards. You only need to buy what you require.
“The software we provide is a custom real-time Debian operating system, along with middleware that makes many of the tricky parts of robotics a bit easier. We provide an easy way to program the FPGA, make getting data to and from devices easy with API function calls, and make sharing data with other robots, and the Internet very simple.
“Our system comes built in with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and optional 4G/LTE along with software that can manage which combinations of these technologies to use.”
While Redtree waits for the right moment for its full debut some time in Autumn this year, the company is offering its chipset on request through its website, mainly to developers who want to be among the first to work with Hydra. At the moment, the programming language for the chipset is C and C++, but Redtree indicated that it may add other languages.
A number of interesting projects based on Hydra have been posted on Hackaday, the website for engineers and engineering enthusiasts. In one, a prototype for a Redtree Hydra Drone is described.
“There’s a wide range of projects using, or committed to using, the Redtree Hydra,” says Ernst. “There is a project where a ground vehicle and an aerial vehicle both powered by the Redtree Hydra collaborate together for soil sampling.
“Another project is a swarm aerial vehicle project. There are also some projects where robots powered by our system are linked with wearable technology allowing feedback and collaboration with humans.”
Redtree is gradually gaining ground in the maker community, which is seen as mostly made up of enthusiasts who build things in their spare time, often with friends and family members. The company is also looking to enter the corporate sector with what it claims is an industry first – a mobile programmable logic controller (PLC), or mPLC as Redtree calls it.
A PLC is a computer that controls automated systems in factories. Until recently, most automated equipment has tended to be stationary, or fixed – it stays in one place. But as factories increasingly use robots for a wider variety of tasks, technology will be needed to manage mobile automated equipment, or industrial robots.
That’s where Redtree’s mPLC would be useful. It’s a product that could have a massive impact on manufacturing and factory- and warehouse-based processes across many sectors.
“A PLC traditionally has been deployed in factories and automation,” Ernst says. “In the 1970s people were trying to scale machinery in factories and warehouses, and found that they were always re-inventing the wheel.
“There was no common ‘computer system’ that would enable interoperability between systems in these factories and warehouses. The PLC became this system that prevented lots of custom in-house, specialized development at each factory or warehouse and standardized the industry.
“However, these units often depend on fixed infrastructure like wiring and do not work well when attached to moving devices. With our experience in this space, we realize that PLCs and automation has been well understood for some time, but the challenges of mobile robotics were not.”
After much consideration of the issue, Tom Hummel, Redtree’s CEO, felt inspired to bring the same ease of programming to mobile robotics, and combined with Ernst’s expertise in wireless networks – specifically keeping moving things connected together – the two found it was possible to take on the challenges of a PLC-like device that moved around.
Some of these challenges, says Ernst, include limited bandwidth, coverage and connectivity of specific wireless technologies, interference, environmental effects, reliability and so on. “Solutions to many of these issues have made their way into the Redtree Hydra.”
The Hydra comes with a variety of wireless technologies which can be applied to the Internet of Things (IoT), a network for machines to communicate with each other that many believe will bring profound changes to manufacturing processes and industry in general. And it’s a technology which Redtree has identified as having “a future space to grow into”.
Ernst adds: “Our future plans also see further cost reductions with scale as well as reducing the size of the Hydra system. Right now it is roughly credit card sized, but we already have designs to make it about the size of a small coin.”
The company is also looking at plans to use other services like Upverter, an electronic design automation software application, so that people can design their robots and include the Redtree Hydra as a board level component or chip.
“IoT will play an important role in manufacturing,” says Ernst. “The more ‘things’ that become part of the analytics of the manufacturing line, the more people and computers will be able to optimize the production process. Bottlenecks will be improved, waste will be reduced, and so on.”
Ernst is a computer science graduate, and won first place in Code 2014, Canada’s largest hackathon. Hummel’s degree is in engineering. Both are PhD candidates.
Redtree is actively looking to recruit new talent, and invites applications from those with backgrounds in engineering and computer science. In particular, it’s looking for a partner-level COO to round out its team.
Even before more recruitment, however, Redtree says it’s getting ready to disrupt the industry by making the power of its technology accessible to a wide audience of developers.