Getting to Know: Kevin Rathbone, Robotae Ltd

• Tell us a little about your background. How did you come to the industry?

I took an unusual route to a career in engineering, starting with a degree in mathematics at Cambridge University, then a Diploma in Computer Science, before going to Sheffield University for a PhD in robotics and AI. I stayed in Sheffield for a postdoc that involved designing a range of robots for use as both an academic research platform and a public exhibition; I gave myself a crash course in engineering for this. I then returned to the Cambridge area, entering industry as an electronics/embedded software engineer at a pharmaceutical automation company, developing a range of products from desktop dispensers to large scale high throughput screening suites, all involving precise motor control, a lot of which was done using a servo controller I single-handedly developed. After a few years of this, I moved to one of Cambridge’s big four technology consultancies, gaining a broad range of experience working on projects in an equally broad range of markets.

Since my time in Sheffield, my long term goal had been to set up a robotics company and in February this year I decided I had enough contacts and experience (both technical and commercial) to make that a successful reality, so I formed Robotae.

• Tell me about your company

Robotae is a small technology consultancy specialising in robotics. I’m aiming at the domestic and service robotics area (mobile robots operating in the same space as people), as this is a rapidly growing market that will make robotics much more visible in day-to-day life than it has been so far, but am happy to work on projects not in this sector. Until recently I have been developing the control software for a camera stabilising gimbal designed by a client in New Zealand. Another client is based in China; he runs a factory making items for the fashion industry and wants to free up his polishing staff to work on new projects by automating the polishing on his established lines of cufflinks. Once he’d established that no suitable machine already existed, he commissioned me to design and build such a machine. Nine months later, I’m finishing the reliability testing before shipping it to China.

• Why did you choose to work with maxon? 

Quality and support. The quality is not only in the products themselves, but also the level of detailed information available for selecting a product. The datasheets are some of the most comprehensive in the market and if you need to know more, maxon's Sales Engineers are highly knowledgeable and helpful, whether you’re buying a single motor or thousands of pounds worth. On the rare occasions that a product is faulty, they’re quick to put it right.

For the polishing machine project, I initially asked about a range of motors I was already familiar with and maxon suggested I consider a newer range. The motors in this range were smaller, had better capabilities and were lower cost, all of which helped the project.

• maxon comment 

This is a great example of using multiple EPOS2 24-2 motion controllers in an application (one of maxon's smallest motion controllers, it is smaller than a matchbox) all linked together with CAN bus to produce a multi axis motion controller. The EPOS motion controller provides a low cost, very flexible system. Kevin chose EC max 30 motors fitted with encoders for dynamic motion control.

• What have been the highlights and lowlights of the current project?

As with most projects, the highlight was when the machine first accomplished the task it was designed to do—the feeling at that moment is the reason I chose an engineering career.

The low point? Trying to engage new suppliers in Britain while visiting a client in New Zealand.

• What’s the next step for Robotae?

My immediate aim is to grow my client base, to allow the size of the team to grow. Another goal is to develop Robotae’s own IP, enabling more rapid development of new robots.

• How do you see the industry evolving over the next 5 years?

Robots are going to become more visible in everyday life. This is a result of not only smaller, cheaper, faster, lower power processors, sensors and actuators but also advances in AI and new robotic safety standards being introduced by bodies such as ISO and legal frameworks being developed by various governments. We’re already seeing robotic vacuum cleaners transition to mainstream with product announcements from Dyson and Samsung; quadcopters for professional and hobby use are proliferating; the number of telepresence robots on the market seems to increase every week and service robots are beginning to be deployed, most prominently in hospitals and fulfilment centres. Expect the range of applications to explode over the next few years, particularly after last year’s press releases from Google and Amazon made the business world start thinking of robotics as being mature enough for applications other than traditional industrial robotics.

However, don’t expect the world to change overnight—robots aren’t smartphone apps, the development cycle is much longer and ramping up manufacture isn’t instant, either. We’ll see gradual introduction but over a vast range of applications.

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