5:00am

Thu May 31, 2012
Business

A Wide Road for Robotics Maker RoadNarrows

Northern Colorado is home to a lot of fascinating, but not necessarily well-known tech companies. Loveland-based robotics company RoadNarrows is one of them.

KUNC’s Brian Larson spoke to Northern Colorado Business Report Publisher Jeff Nuttall about the company and their upcoming expansion plans.

Larson: Artificial Intelligence and robotics is an ever growing field and RoadNarrows is expanding its product line. Before we get to that, Jeff let’s start with some background. How did this company end up in Loveland?

Nuttall: CEO Kim Wheeler and the chief technology guy, Robin Knight, founded the company in 2002 after they escaped the corporate world. They now operate in a nice, old brick building in downtown Loveland next to a bar and tattoo parlor.

Larson: Sounds like there might be a joke in there somewhere Jeff – but I will refrain for the sake of the audience.

Nuttall: Probably a good idea.

Larson: I mentioned that they are expanding their product line. What does that include?

Nuttall: The company’s product line centers on robots used in research and education. RoadNarrows has sold its robots to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Berkeley, and U.S. Air Force Academy. However, this year, the company has developed a robotic vehicle and robotic arm that have real practical uses. The vehicle can haul as much as 300 pounds and can operate alone or by a person using an Xbox controller.

Larson: Those are not the kind of robots that pop into my mind initially when I think about artificial intelligence.

Nuttall: I suppose many people think should appear anthropomorphic. Instead, it looks like a small tank with knobby tires. Knight, the chief tech officer, says it’s designed to make trips in rugged terrain, say for use by oil and gas companies to monitor wells on Alaska’s remote North Slope. The steel robotic vehicle is equipped with infrared cameras, which could detect gas leaks from wells.

Larson: What else can it do?

Nuttall: Well, it can be programmed with a computer to perform various tasks, so a variety of industries and government agencies, including police and fire departments, could use it. It could, for example, work on a police department’s bomb squad to investigate potential explosives. If something went wrong, they might lose a robot, but at least they wouldn’t lose a life.

Larson: What about cost?

Nuttall: RoadNarrows hopes to develop it for $50,000, which is a fraction of what these robots normally cost.

Larson: There’s also the robotic arm?

Nuttall: Yes.

Larson: A lot of companies already produce similar products. So what makes this one special?

Nuttall: RoadNarrows envisions that the arm could be used in a variety of industries, including everything from brewing to baking. Cost is again a factor. Many lower-end robotic arms can’t do meaningful work. And high-end products typically cost more than $100,000. RoadNarrows plans to sell its arm for approximately $5,000. The company is working on an application that would allow people to give commands to the robotic arm. It would function like the Google Talk Android application.

Larson: Intriguing stuff – but is there a market for all this?

Nuttall: There is. The company has grown an average 20 percent annually over the last decade. And CEO Kim Wheeler told us that she expects more than 20-percent growth this year too.

Larson: Jeff Nuttall is the publisher of the Northern Colorado Business Report.

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