A computer generated image of the iRobot 500 on a site tour

'Roaming' videoconferencing robot revealed

A robot fitted with video conferencing equipment will help managers “visit” remote sites from the comfort of their offices.

Robotics expert iRobot has teamed up with networking multi-national Cisco to create the iRobot Ava 500, which will allow users to tour offices, manufacturing sites and laboratories without the need to travel.

The firms announced a joint marketing agreement at the InfoComm conference in Florida today that will see the device, which blends iRobot’s autonomous navigation with Cisco’s TelePresence equipment, go on sale in early 2014.

And with the Ava 500 compatible with all major videoconferencing vendors’ equipment and costing in the region of $2,000 to $2,500 a month to lease, Snorre Kjesbu, vice president for Cisco’s Collaboration Endpoint Technology Group, believes the technology could help global businesses significantly cut the costs and environmental impact of their long-distance travel.

“I don’t see it as a fancy toy for executives,” he said. “You can obviously share this thing because it becomes you when you connect to it, it becomes someone else when they connect to it, so you don’t need one unit per person.”

“If you fly to Shanghai it’s a couple of thousand dollars for back of the bus,” he added. “If you save one trip a month to Shanghai it’s paid itself back. If you have an organisation with tens of people flying regularly that’s certainly easy maths.”

The device combines an enhanced version of iRobot’s Ava mobile robotics platform with Cisco’s desktop TelePresence EX60 personal video system by mounting the 21.5in HD resolution screen and camera on top of the robot.

The remote user controls Ava 500 using an iPad interface, selecting their destination by tapping a location on a map or by choosing a room or employee name. An available robot is then activated to take the user where they want to go before automatically returning to its charging station when the session is over.

“You can either load a floor plan by taking a drawing of the building and loading it in then it knows where to go or the other option is that it will learn when you walk about and make its own map,” said Kjesbu. “That’s what’s neat about this technology. There’s a certain amount of intelligence to it.”

The user can choose whether to make the trip from the charging station to selected location in either “private” mode – where the screen appears blank – or in “public” mode – where the user’s face is displayed allowing them to have ad-hoc hallway conversation with colleagues,

And for Kjesbu, who is based in Norway but regularly travels to the US, it is this ability to “roam” that makes the Ava 500 more attractive than traditional videoconferencing systems.

“My problem is not that I don’t have enough meetings, I have more than enough,” he said. “For me, to know an organisation is in a healthy spirit and has got people who are alive and kicking, you need to be able to roam the corridors.”

The device features autonomous navigation, meaning there is no need to “drive” the robot as it maps its own environment allowing it to self-navigate busy environments such as offices, manufacturing floors and laboratories without bumping into people or objects.

The Ava 500 uses both the Cisco TelePresence EX60 personal unit and Cisco Aironet 1600 Series wireless access points giving it enterprise-grade security and compatibility with any standards-based video conferencing system.

“iRobot is excited to work with Cisco to bring this next generation of telepresence to businesses worldwide,” said Youssef Saleh, vice president and general manager of iRobot’s Remote Presence business unit.

“iRobot has been successful in introducing autonomous remote presence platforms to hospitals. Ava 500 will unlock new markets and applications for telepresence in the workplace.”

Visit www.facebook.com/eandtmagazine for a video of the Ava 500 in action.

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