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Robotics Firm Sets Its Sights on Wheelchairs and Forklifts

A company known as 5D Robotics wants to bring the field of smart robotics to manufacturing, medical technology, transportation, and other sectors.

Brian Buntz

5D Robotics
5D Robotics' technology could be used to navigate wheelchairs. Image courtesy City of Carlsbad.

5D Robotics' (Carlsbad, CA) navigation technology was originally developed for military applications to detect land mines, but the number of applications of the company's technology could be multitudinous.

The company uses ultra wideband (UWB) tags to navigate, which offer a number of advantages over other technologies used for navigation such as GPS or radar. Compared with GPS, it has far superior precision, capable of navigating a path on an aerial image or map within a centimeter range. GPS, by contrast, sometimes has trouble even directing a car to stay on a single street.

The technology could also be used for warehousing applications as well, where it could potentially eliminate forklift accidents thanks to its ability to "see" around blind corners, according to David Bruemmer, CEO and co-founder of the company. The robot comes equipped with an optical sensor that helps avoid collisions. "The ability to prevent collisions around corners comes from the UWB technology," Bruemmer explains.

In the medical realm, one potential application is its use to offer precise navigation abilities for users of wheelchairs. The company is optimistic about the prospects of the technology to assist with the navigation of wheelchairs as well as cars.

In the video below, the robot can be seen following a skater wearing a vest equipped with sensors.

The original idea behind the robot's navigation technology was for it to help aid in the detection of and marking the coordinates of landmines. The accuracy of its positioning capabilities is an asset here, including its ability to not be thrown off by shadows, dust, and uneven terrain. It can also detect obstacles including people that may be positioned along its path. In this case, it can stop and determine a new route if necessary.  

The robot can also assist soldiers on the battlefield, following behind soldiers or military vehicles carrying supplies in tow.

The fact that this technology has military roots is by no means untypical. There is, in fact, a long history of robotics breakthroughs that have been developed for military applications.

In World War II, the remote-controlled German Goliath miniature robotic tank was used to attack tanks and destroy buildings and bridges. More recently, the U.S. military began to rely heavily on unmanned aerial aircraft to carry out missions.

The medical establishment has also benefited from technology that was originally developed for military applications. The da Vinci robot from Intuitive Surgical was originally designed for use on the battlefield. Powered exoskeletons used in physical therapy such as those made by Ekso Bionics were also originally the result of a DARPA-backed project to upgrade soldier's merely human abilities.

Learn more about cutting-edge medical devices at MD&M Philadelphia, October 7-8, 2015.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN and Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.

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