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N.H. firm creates growing global workforce of robots

A Patrolbot robot made by MobileRobots Inc. underwent testing in the company’s warehouse in Amherst, N.H., last month.
A Patrolbot robot made by MobileRobots Inc. underwent testing in the company’s warehouse in Amherst, N.H., last month. (AP Photo)

AMHERST, N.H. -- A growing army of "relentlessly reliable" robots is at work around the world, patrolling warehouses -- with eyes in the backs of their heads that can "see" in the dark -- carrying items in a steel plant, helping to make computer chips, even acting as museum tour guide s in London.

Varied as those tasks are, they barely scratch the surface of the possibilities, as MobileRobots Inc. CEO Jeanne Dietch sees it. Her robots can be outfitted with motion detectors, smoke detectors, gas detectors, cameras and microphones, laser guidance systems, speakers, or -- in the case of one at company headquarters -- a small refrigerator.

"Hello everybody," it announced after entering a conference room. "Get your soda here."

That was SodaBot. Dietsch said she is working on a RoomserviceBot for hotels.

Customers can select from a list of options and, as Dietsch did recently, direct a robot to wait at the front door, greet visitors, and take them to her office: "Hello boss. The Associated Press is here," it announced.

The company has been making robots for 11 years, mostly for research and development. With 25 employees, it has shipped more than 3,000 robots around the world, to customers in the Far East, Europe, Canada, and the United States, Dietsch said.

Unlike reconnaissance robots that police or the military direct by watching video images and operating a joystick, MobileRobots units can patrol an area continuously and return to a docking station to wait for new tasks or to recharge. As they move about, laser guidance steers them around obstacles, such as reporters who jump in their path.

Dan Kara, who keeps tabs on the newest developments for Robotics Trends Inc., in Upton, Mass., said Dietsch's company is a leader in the move away from robots that act merely as machines to those that act as co-workers. The goal is building robots that not only interact with people, but with other robots or home networks.

"Some others that run by themselves bounce off walls or are robots that do very, very specific jobs and have to be kept away from humans," Dietsch said. "Ours are people-friendly. They are made to work with people and to help people and to be people's assistants."

In another contrast with competitors, MobileRobots builds machines that can be adapted for specific customers rather than designing them to do specific tasks, Kara said.

"They want their expertise to be in robotics and what they want to do is have people who have expertise, for instance, in hospital automation, or warehouse automation, or security experts, to take their platform, add onto it the components that are necessary to make it work in that particular market, and that will be the total solution," he said.

Their most common task is to move items, ranging from medical specimens to lengths of steel. One model can carry 250 to 300 pounds.

The company's most popular model is the PatrolBot, which costs about $35,000. Anthony Diodato, president of Cypress Computer Systems Inc. in Lapeer, Mich., said they are "relentlessly reliable."

Diodato said he searches the country for autonomous robots to sell to clients for security and other tasks. He was so impressed with MobileRobots that the two companies have become partners.

"So far it's the only one demonstrated to me that can go from point A to point B without having to be told how to get there," he said. "This one actually just uses a map and once I saw that, it sent shivers down my spine. It creates a map of its world and uses it."

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