Mobile Robot Solutions

I interview Martin Spencer of Feb. 19, 2010.

Martin: “We’ve been around over 12 years. Our focus is on mobile robot solutions for safety, security and service. We’ve had to develop many inventions from a plain sheet of paper, predominantly in software. We’re in markets such as consumer, commercial, security, professional healthcare, public safety, agriculture, etc.”

Lev: “So how does propose to integrate robotics into people’s homes?”

Martin: “We already have robots in our homes. They’re just camouflaged. The traditional definition of a robot is an electro-mechanical system under software control. That’s a modern car. That’s fuel injection under computer control. That’s TIVO. Even your old VCRs were robotic systems. What differentiates us is that we’re a mobile robotic system as opposed to a fixed robotic solution such as you have in your printer, scanner or VCR.

“We’ve had robots programmed by knotted strings, cams, and gears for about 3,000 years. In fact, line-following robots were developed in the 1930s, using vacuum tubes and relays. They are presently on exhibit at the Smithsonian.

“When I was a child, my mother bought me an electro-set one Christmas and I got the bug. In 1966, when I started in electrical engineering school, it was to become a roboticist.

“The term ‘robot’ has been around for about a half century now. Even Leonardo DaVinci did a robot that was programmed with gears, cams, and knotted strings.”

Lev: “How will the CareBot transform the delivery of home healthcare?”

Martin: “Greater efficiency. Like any good home appliance, like an automatic washing machine, it doesn’t eliminate the need to wash the clothes, you still have to do it, but now you don’t have to manually run the wet clothes through the ringer, you don’t have to manually hang them out on a line, so the automatic washing machine and automatic dryer are time-saving, labor-saving and time management appliances. Any time we get something in our homes that lets us do more in a timely fashion, like a microwave oven, or a crockpot, or a VCR, those devices become popular so long as they are cost-effective.”

Lev: “What kind of patient can benefit the most from the CareBot?”

Martin: “The frailest. There’s physically frail and emotionally frail. Perhaps the greatest horror for an elderly person who’s physically challenged is the emotional trauma, the loss of independence, in being forced to relocate their home of many years into an alien environment.

“Those with short-term memory loss, those on a lot of medication, say 10-15 medications a day at 20 different times, that coupled with short-term memory loss, is a very different administration problem for the caregiver.

“There’s far more benefit to the robot than a simple reminder and a simple monitoring system. It is its ability to be customized by the family in ways that are reassuring verbally to the caregiver. Favorite family stories, anecdotes, jokes, Bible verses, songs, the family can now customize their CareBot so that grandma has a whole new way of being told by their family of their love and honor of them.”

Lev: “I can see how this could even save lives.”

Martin: “My grandma lived by herself as she wished. Despite my uncle visiting her every two or three days, to his horror, he found her one day, he hadn’t visited for a couple of days, and she’d fallen and broken her hip and hadn’t been able to get to the phone.

“She survived but the suffering she endured was just unconscionable for most families. While the CareBot would not have saved her life, she lived anyway, her pain and suffering would’ve been diminished dramatically had there been a CareBot to automatically notify my uncle or his wife or any of the other relatives in town that she was down and unable to get up.

“There have been instance when people have dropped into an insulin shock, into a coma. Even though they may have a button on their wrist they can push, if they are out cold, they can’t push it.

“The CareBot ends up being a new kind of safety net allowing the family to manage the risk of giving the care receiver too much independence given the frailty of their health and inability to get around regularly.

“Let’s say the grandchildren visit grandma. It’s a great visit. And then they leave. Thirty minutes later, due to memory problems, grandma has forgotten they were there. That’s tragic. What she needs to hear for the next several days, every hour or so, is for the robot to say, ‘Mama, Danielle and Philip were here yesterday. You had the best visit with them. You talked with them about this. You talked with them about that. They’re really excited about coming to see you again on Thanksgiving.’

“Since she forgets everything in 20-30 minutes, telling her that once an hour for days and days would drive a human being crazy. For a machine, not a problem. And look at what we just did for grandma.”

Lev: “How does the CareBot monitor if someone falls down, breaks a hip, or goes into insulin shock?”

Martin: “We’re advanced with sensor fusion. It’s how we understand what people say in a noisy crowd. We not only hear their words, we also lip-read. We use two senses to determine what they’re saying. We use multiple sensor systems. We have passive infrared, which gives up body heat, we have machine vision, which gives us color recognition, we have sonar, which gives us distance, as well as infrared range-finders, which also gives us distance, and we have the ability to verbally interact with grandma. If grandma doesn’t respond, it’s time to call 9-1-1. That happens within minutes.”

Lev: “I have an 85-year old friend who fell off his bed. He got tangled up in his sheets and stuck between his bed and the wall for three days until a neighbor found him. My friend lived.”

Martin: “I’ll tell you how we would’ve detected that. I was at a situational awareness technology called Gecko Prox. It’s designed to watch Grandma to see whether or not she’s in bed, out of bed, or not to be found. In that scenario, we would’ve detected her movement in the bed, we would’ve noted her disappearance, and not being able to find her, there’s yet again to call the neighbors or the other designated caregivers.

“Most families have loved ones and the last thing they want to do is to move them into a nursing home because of the frequent depression, the medication to deal with that depression, and within a couple of years, grandma’s physical state has deteriorated dramatically, because of her emotional depression at not being in her own home anymore.

“Some families are indifferent to their parents’ security and safety and look at nursing homes as an opportunity to park mom and dad, but those families who do cherish their elderly family members are desperate to keep them home, secure and safe as long as it is feasible. This is where we are the most cost-effective. In that scenario, we have a payback in six to nine months because of the high cost of nursing homes.”

Lev: “Do people typically buy, rent or lease the CareBot?”

Martin: “All three. Our business model is much like that of a car manufacture where people buy, rent and lease. We agree with Honda that the personal robot market is larger than the cell phone market as soon as the small personal robot costs less than the small car.

“Just as cars have a minimum price due to the laws of physics, it takes this much steel, this much iron, this much copper, this much rubber, to have a vehicle capable of transporting a couple of people at safe speeds in highways and towns. You have this same fundamental cost structure in mobile robots. To have sufficient power to run 15-20 hours, to carry the appropriate level of electronics, gives a floor to the cost structure, unlike systems that are predominantly electronic, that can be cost-reduced, such as a radio…

“Bill Gates a year ago in Scientific America, did a wonderful article entitled, ‘A Robot For Every Home.’ If he’s right, that’s 110 million homes. That’s a staggering market. And just as there are homes with more than one computer or television, we’re going to see homes with more than one personal robot.”

Lev: “How does the CareBot help care for children?”

Martin: “Much the same way it does for adults. Adults can be two places in a house. They may have an active two-year old playing in a room while you work at your computer in another room, but the instant the child wanders off into other parts of the house, it can get into mischief. So the adult in that scenario needs a video camera in the lower left hand corner of their computer monitor so they can be notified and see for themselves that the child is no longer playing in the bedroom, but, because the robot automatically follows the child, they can see the child is now headed for the basement, an area of treachery for a small child. The CareBot enables time management and labor-saving. The adult can be productive most of the time and still have an eye out for the child.

“The smart home approach with multiple sensors per room, I’ve never seen any cost studies on those.”

Lev: “What makes the CareBot different from the competition?”

Martin: “We’re complete. You need two sets of capabilities – the base bot with basic locomotion and power and sensor and software for navigation, and the next level is verbal interaction, scheduling, and tracking so the robot stays proximate to a designated care receiver. To the best of my knowledge, we’re the only company in the world with that sufficient suite of technologies.”

Lev: “So you’ve been in robotics for 40 years?”

Martin: “Yes. I worked for six years for Harmonic Drive, the sole supplier for a key component in electrical industrial robots during the 1980s and 1990s. This technology Harmonic Drive is in just about every electrical robot in the world. During my tenure, I learned a great deal about what you can and cannot do in electrical mechanical systems under software control.”

Lev: “When is the CareBot better than the conventional nurse or assistant?”

Martin: “It’s not.

“Why does the typical bricklayer have an assistant? So he can lay more bricks faster and better. That’s the situation with us. We don’t replace. We augment. Nurses spend a lot of time doing routine repetitive tasks such as temperature and blood pressure. Simply taking those two tasks off the nurse’s shoulders gives her more time to provide better healthcare with more favorable outcomes. The CareBot lets the nurse do a better job.

“The reason for the popularity of robotics in surgery is that it doesn’t replace the doctor. His skills, his eyes, his understanding of the issues is still critical to the outcome, but due to the delicacy and low-invasion properties of a robotic surgical system, they are able to have quicker and less invasive surgeries and more favorable outcomes. This is what we’re doing. We’re enabling caregivers to do a better job.”

Lev: “How does one save money with the CareBot?”

Martin: “Half the nursing homes in Florida are in bankruptcy. The cost for the average nursing home nationally is $4500 a month. Many believe that nursing homes are economically untenable. That’s a hard reality. Grandma can generally stay in her own place for $2500 a month. When she goes into a nursing home, someone is going to have to come up with another $2,000 a month to make up that difference.

“We expect the CareBots to sell for $12,000 to $15,000, the price of a small car. What’s the payback? Six to eight months. On a two-to-three year note, the payments will run $400 to $600 a month, which is still less than putting grandma in a nursing home and she’s far happier staying in her own place.”

Lev: “What are some of the things a CareBot does in a typical day with a patient?”

Martin: “Follows her around. Reminds her to take medication. Enables the caregiver to know that they’re safe. Communicates to the care receiver, the grandma, family anecdotes, Bible verses, that the family has programmed in to the Carebot, so that she gets not only oversight and assistance, but the CareBot routinely communicates to her how the family feels about Grandma.

“Young children frequently have imaginary friends. A personal robot to a child is a new playmate. A personal robot to the elderly is a new kind of companion. While it is a machine, it knows all the family jokes, stories, all the medications and when she is supposed to take them. How does it know that? The family loaded it in via a software application that looks like a spreadsheet.”

Lev: “What’s the reaction within the medical community to the CareBot?”

Martin: “Much like corporate business’s reaction to personal computers in the early 1980s. During that time, if you carried in a personal computer into your Fortune 500 workplace, not infrequently it was perceived as basis for termination of that employee. Why? We’ve got millions of dollars in mainframes, we’ve got hundreds of dumb terminals, we have no need for these newfangled personal computers.

“Well, by the late 1980s, big business figured it out and started buying personal computers by the train load. But the first adopters of personal computers were accountants. When they saw a spreadsheet demonstrated on an Apple or PC, they pulled out their checkbook and bought one on the spot. The bump in productivity was so significant, they had no choice but to buy one now.

“Those were individuals, not corporate America. They understood it would pay for itself within a few months.

“For all the right reasons, the medical community is risk averse.

“We want to enable that practicioner to be in more places at once and to focus their attention on the greatest priority. If there are seven patients they are monitoring, they know which one they need to visit first.”

“We’re excited about the evaluation trials of the CareBot. We’re looking to expand them. You don’t want to put out a lot of them until you have most of the wrinkles ironed out.”

“I’m asked frequently, what’s the biggest problem? And the biggest problem with this venture for the past several years is that the technology has been a head-banger. The greatest difficulty in many ways has been the skepticism in the investment community. We’ve encountered the sort of disbelief that the first airplanes had. If God had meant man to fly, he would’ve given him wings. Why should I invest money in something this ludicrous? That skepticism is our biggest challenge. That’s why we have dozens of videos on our website That’s why we’ve thrown public conferences. That’s why we’re going to several public conferences to demonstrate this year, to overcome that skepticism. ‘If this is such a wonderful invention, why didn’t General Electric do it?’

“Breakthrough technology tends to come out of Steve Jobs’ garage. It comes out of Harvey Firestone’s kitchen on a Sunday morning when he figured out how to vulcanize rubber.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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