RECRUIT A ROBOT
Far from STEALING our jobs and making humans redundant, ROBOTICS are going to keep us HEALTHIER and happier, argues Ivan Storr.
There’s plenty of mystery, and even fear, surrounding the new wave of robots with the ever-present dread that artificial intelligence is out to steal our jobs. But Ivan Storr, CEO of Blue Ocean Robotics Australia, is working on robots that aren’t out to replace humans, but rather provide a complementary skill set to the roles that people already play.
First up is fighting hospital-acquired infections, the diseases and viruses that patients pick up while in hospital for another illness or complaint. They can be life-threatening, and count infections such as pneumonia and staph among their ranks.
“Hospital-acquired infections cost the Australian healthcare system AU$1 billion per year, not to mention the human cost,” explains Ivan. “People do actually die from these diseases. If we could reduce its occurrence by just one per cent, it would free up 150,000 bed days in Australian hospitals every year, and allow an extra 38,000 people to be admitted to hospital, with no increase to medical resources.”
Most importantly, it would save lives. That’s why the global team at Blue Ocean Robotics invented the UV-Disinfection Robot. Developed in partnership with a network of Danish hospitals, the robot autonomously drives around disinfecting all contact surfaces in a room, using a UV-C light system. It’s been taken through a pilot program and is now ready to be deployed in hospitals, factories and other sterile facilities around the world.
Hospitals will still need to be cleaned, but the UVDisinfection Robot is able to sterilise at a level that’s virtually impossible to achieve by the human hand.
This little piece of genius is just one of a slew of powerful and revolutionary robotic innovations that could transform the way we live, work and interact.
With a background in computer science and engineering, and a passion for robotics that began when he was in primary school, it was almost inevitable that Ivan would end up working in this space.
“As a kid, I used to tinker with making robots and packing together bits and pieces of radio controls and electronics. Now robotics is a real thing, and with actual courses that make it much easier to make robots than it was for me as a child!” he laughs.
Ivan has a varied background – he studied a bachelor of computer science, then returned to university a few years later to obtain his masters of project management. His CV includes engineering and project management for telecommunications companies, the Brisbane City Council, and even the United Nations, with stints on the ground in Haiti and South Sudan. “I then started a company of my own, Macrobotix, which helps clients to customise ‘off the shelf ’ robotic solutions to their specific needs. I went to Silicon Valley on a tour of robotics companies and through that I connected with Blue Ocean Robotics, and realised we were very well aligned,” says Ivan.
Originally founded in Denmark in 2013 by Claus Risager, Rune Larsen and John Erland Ostergaard, Blue Ocean Robotics was created as a platform to invest resources and capital into the fast-growing robotics industry.
The company incubates and leads innovative projects where problems are identified and robotic products are developed to provide (at least part of) the solution. >
As a KID, I used to TINKER with making robots and packing together BITS and pieces of RADIO controls and electronics.
The end goal is to commercialise and introduce the robots to the market. Then, when the timing is right, to sell, license or spin out the intellectual property rights, while remaining closely tied to the original product as a strategy partner.
Ivan says the organisation’s eye is always fixed on the ‘why’.
“We’re focused on the benefits for humans, with particular attention on a solution that will make jobs safer and easier.” Their philosophy, unsurprisingly, is simple: ‘for humans’.
Previous prototypes include the Skyline Printer, a robot Ivan designed to paint buildings to avoid exposing people to the safety risks of working at great heights. (“I wanted to solve a problem in the construction arena. The high cost and long lead time involved in using scaffolding when painting commercial buildings can create huge time and budget blowouts,” says Ivan.)
There’s also Romibo, a pet-like social robot for children with autism. Covered in fur, with two eyes on a computer screen (that blink and follow faces, without the confusing array of human facial expressions), Romibo moves around on two wheels, and is controlled via smartphone or iPad.
The robot can help students learn a number of skills – it’s even capable of helping to teach a young student English. A positive side effect of using the robot has included less stress, and improved concentration and confidence.
Interacting with Romibo may also help to facilitate conversations that normally don’t exist. When a 10-year-old boy with autism used Romibo, he went from answering in short, sharp ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses to having actual conversations with the robot. His parents reported that he was previously unable to use full sentences and rarely spoke at all. As a safe, non-threatening friend, Romibo encourages him to want to speak – to the point where, on his birthday, he asked Romibo if the robot wanted to hear what present he received.
Romibo was created out of Blue Ocean Robotics’ European office in partnership with US educational and special needs consultants, with the robotic aspect taken care of by Blue Ocean Robotics. It’s now sold by Origami Robotics in the US for US$599.
With so many applications, and so much scope to improve our lives, robotics is “a very new industry” on the cusp of delivering a suite of gamechanging ideas, Ivan says.
“It’s very technically led, with new researchers bringing new ideas out of university every year,” he adds.
For this reason, the company has adopted a global view that sees them routinely working with partners and collaborators across several continents.
We’re FOCUSED on the BENEFITS for humans, with particular ATTENTION on a SOLUTION that will make jobs SAFER and easier.
The business itself is broadly based, with the three original founders choosing to partner with a select number of international ‘co-founders’ to grow their vision globally. These include Ivan in Australia; Hege Eiklild and John Mulholland in Norway, Claus Lenz and Thorsten Röder in Germany, and Lennart Karlsson in Sweden. They also have offices in Turkey, France, Spain and the Benelux region, a politicoeconomic union of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
“What we’re aiming to do with Blue Ocean Robotics is to draw on the tech that’s available at research institutes and universities around the world, and bring that together to solve commercial problems,” says Ivan.
But one of the biggest challenges the industry faces, says Ivan, is awareness and getting the public familiar with robotics, while also working through the fear that robots will threaten certain industries and people’s job security in the future.
“We can partner with people across any industry and if they have a pain point, we can work with them to create a solution,” explains Ivan.
“As a project manager… I understand that it’s very natural [for people] to be afraid of what ‘might’ happen. But robotics offers powerful new tools for growth and change. Once people know how to work with them, they’ll be excited rather than afraid.”