Australian inventor wants to help you be in two places at once

The business founded by young engineer, STEM evangelist and entrepreneur Marita Cheng has just begun shipping its new product, Teleport. Brent Balinski spoke to Cheng about getting robots into our homes.

It’s not northern California, Boston, Odense or any of the other world-famous robotics clusters, but operating out of Richmond, Melbourne – where 2Mar Robotics builds its machine – is no barrier to catching the global wave in personal robots.

The thing is to think in international terms, believes founder Marita Cheng, robot builder and once described earlier this year as “one of the most prominent and respected entrepreneurs” in the land.

“We try to think globally, and already we are thinking about our next product, in the global context, in terms of how it will make an impact at different expos and [with] the export opportunities that we have”, Cheng told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“I have a business partner in San Fran now, working on artificial intelligence, but also helping me scope out for our next product – maintaining a global vision is very important.”

2Mar started shipping pre-orders this month for its Teleport product, a web-controlled telepresence machine, able to look ahead and downwards simultaneously and adjust in height from 1.2 metres to 1.7 metres. This allows “a much better, much more immersive, exciting experience,” said Cheng.

Cheng – who also co-founded Aipoly, a machine vision company enabling blind people to perceive their surroundings – is already thinking about what to build next. She excitedly mentions a virtual reality version of Teleport as well as a version with a robotic arm during the conversation.

Interest for the just-released product has been good so far, said Cheng, coming from museums, hospitals, home security businesses and elsewhere.

All the units are designed and assembled by a small team out of Richmond.

“Software engineers, mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, project manager, assemblers – we’re all preparing to get our robots ready for our first run,” explained Cheng.

As well as in settings where telepresence is useful – saving on travel costs for meetings and presentations, for example – there is the potential in healthcare and other areas.

“We’re looking into running a trial now with kids in hospitals, so when [a patient] finds out they have an illness and have to go to a hospital far away from their home town, they can immediately get a robot into their school,” said Cheng.

“Even when they’re far away they can continue to go to school, see their classmates, continue to interact at home with their family.”

A young leader

Started in 2013 with help from a $20,000 Melbourne Accelerator Program grant, 2Mar was not Cheng’s first robotics venture.

Struck by the tiny female representation in her mechatronics/computer science engineering degree (five girls out of 40 students) – as well as the headstart the boys seemed to have with coding – she founded Robogals in 2008, aged 19.

Through fun robotics projects and school visits, the not-for-profit student-run organisation, aims to foster a love of STEM among younger girls.

Robogals International has so far reached 50,000 girls, with 33 chapters in ten countries, and Cheng’s leadership earned her the Young Australian of The Year award in 2012.

Following this, her entrepreneurial work has a “greater good” flavour to it, starting with the smartphone or tablet-controlled Jeva robotic arm to assist disabled people and more recently with Aipoly.

Handling fiddly tasks

Dexterous manipulation remains a great challenge to leaders in the field. Cheng describes it as an “interesting problem”, but it could be understood as several problems. Picking up an item is a combination of problems including around mechanisms, sensors, algorithms and a sense of touch.

As Andrew Moore, dean of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University told an interviewer last year: “One of the reasons we’re having this renaissance in AI in the last few years is that we’ve become very good at computer vision… But we have not had the same success in grasping and manipulation.

“Roboticists around the world are focusing on that.

Deep learning concepts have offered hope, and Cheng is using machine learning approach to make her grippers more effective.

“So one thing I want to do is [the user] wants these robot arms to machine learn everyday tasks, do these everyday tasks over and over again, so they know the right angle to pick up a cup or grab a chair or what angle they need to do it at in order to grip the cup without spilling water over the floor or themselves,” she said.

Cheng added that another challenge was to make robotic arms that were cheap enough for mass adoption. Cost, she said, was the main challenge to making such robots appealing to global customers.

teleport-healthcare“And so if we create our robots and put the right electronics in there, then our robots can be very clever, and will be able to do many tasks.”

An exciting field

Robots in households are a new thing, with the first mainstream example only seen early in the millennium (iRobot’s Roomba vacuum).

According to some, we’re entering an era of personal, household robots, with early examples (capable of more versatility than a Roomba) including the Jibo “social robot” released last year, SoftBank’s Pepper and Blue Frog’s Buddy.

As a young robotics entrepreneur of 27, Cheng is plying her trade in an era of unprecedented opportunity and excitement.

Not long before this magazine spoke to her, the Elon Musk-founded OpenAI announced its number two technical goal: enabling an off-the-shelf robot to perform basic housework tasks.

Some of the finest minds in AI are on the task of giving machines the powers of Rosie, the Jetsons’ robot.

The theme again provokes excitement from the 2Mar founder, who has elsewhere recalled being bored with household chores as a child a reason she first wanted to make robots.

“It’s something that me and my team are very passionate about, so we’re very excited about the announcement and are very proud to be a part of the industry, because one of our next products will actually tap into the household robot [theme] to do everyday tasks,” she said.

“We just hope that we can work quickly enough to get our next products out there in time, in order to catch that wave.”