The Future Is Now: “We are developing truly human-like robotic arms” With Jorgen Pedersen, President and CEO of RE2 Robotics and Fotis Georgiadis

We are developing truly human-like robotic arms. Industrial robotic arms are dexterous, strong, reliable, and accurate. However, humans have additional qualities that are important. Humans are lightweight, compact, power efficient, have integrated intelligence, can withstand inclement weather, and can handle shock and vibration due to mobility. RE2’s bleeding edge technology puts all of these qualities in one package! By having this compact, robust, strong, and power-efficient manipulation capability, we can perform true human-like tasks. With human-like capability, we can perform dangerous tasks that require human attributes, such as defusing a bomb or working on power lines.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jorgen Pedersen, President and CEO, founded RE2 Robotics in 2001 to make robots that will have a positive impact on the world. Jorgen oversees the strategic direction of the company and stewards the innovation and production of human-like robotic arms, which are used across multiple markets such as defense, aerospace, and energy. Jorgen is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute and one of the founders of the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) of CMU.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was in high-school, I thought my path in life was going to be art. Then along came movies like “Top Gun” and “The Right Stuff,” which motivated me to want to first become a pilot, followed by an astronaut. With my sights set, I focused more on math and science and applied to the Air Force Academy. I didn’t get in. It was a blow, but being driven by “cool factor” at age 18, I soon came up with the idea that making a humanoid robot go to space was the next best thing. I applied to engineering schools and was accepted to Carnegie Mellon University. Once there, I soon found the Robotics Institute. Within their walls, I saw some amazing robots at the time including “Ambler,” a really huge robot that was going to walk around on the moon (or perhaps it was Mars); I found “Dante,” a robot that was going to walk into a volcano; I found “Navlab,” one of the first robots to drive across America autonomously; and many more. I was hooked at that point. I knew what I wanted to do — build robots!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

My first project at the NREC was helping to automate a 25-ton hydraulic excavator for Caterpillar. The goal was to autonomously dig dirt on a berm and dump it into a dump truck. Every year, around the holidays, Cat management would come to the NREC to witness the progress through demonstrations. One year, we thought we would demonstrate the obstacle avoidance software being developed. Working properly, this software would recognize if a person or another object would enter the excavator’s path and stop or alter its trajectory to avoid hitting the object. One year, we were in the holiday spirit and decided to put a life-size plastic Santa Claus on the back corner of the dump truck, right in the way of the dump trajectory. The system worked flawlessly, stopping upon detecting Santa — that is, until the day that a Cat executive arrived. On that sad day, we decapitated the plastic Santa! Luckily, the Cat executive had a sense of humor!

Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

We are developing truly human-like robotic arms. Industrial robotic arms are dexterous, strong, reliable, and accurate. However, humans have additional qualities that are important. Humans are lightweight, compact, power efficient, have integrated intelligence, can withstand inclement weather, and can handle shock and vibration due to mobility. RE2’s bleeding edge technology puts all of these qualities in one package! By having this compact, robust, strong, and power-efficient manipulation capability, we can perform true human-like tasks. With human-like capability, we can perform dangerous tasks that require human attributes, such as defusing a bomb or working on power lines.

How do you think this might change the world?

When you think about it, the entire planet has been designed around the human form factor. So, if we are able to truly replicate human capability in nearly the same form factor, the question moves from “what are we going to do?” to “what aren’t we going to do?”

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

With true human-like capability, one could imagine a world like “Terminator” (a world of man versus machine), but I doubt that we are smart enough to replicate ourselves. We are approaching the asymptote regarding physical capability, but we are much farther away regarding intelligence. Additionally, any tool can be used for good or evil. Society just needs to ensure that we have means to regulate robotics as we do other technologies.

One could also image a world like “Wall-E” (a world of lazy since there are no more human jobs), but I doubt that humans would decay into such a state. Humans adapt and strive for what is next. There will always be something to strive for. Nature abhors a vacuum. There will always be jobs. Twenty-five years ago, no one could have ever guessed that Amazon, Google, and Facebook would be some of the largest employers! Similarly, I doubt we could guess at what the jobs of the future will be!

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

We were developing robotic arms to go on lightweight Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) robots. Weight was the main driver that forced us to look beyond what one could buy off the shelf. This led us into designing our own motor controllers, our own motor housings, and drivetrain housings. As we were experimenting, we realized that heat, just as with humans, is an important factor that causes robotic arms to fatigue and lose torque. Since we were already re-designing the robotic arm joints to be lighter weight, we took the opportunity to also control the heat dissipation path. This generated incredibly more torque than traditional systems and allowed us essentially to put “10 pounds of stuff in a 5 pound bag!”

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

We developed this technology over 12 years through government R&D grants totaling more than $60M. This generated incredible anthropomorphic core technology. We are now recognized in the world as a leader, if not the leader, of human-like robotic arms. As a result, we are being pulled into new vertical market segments. What will allow for the widespread adoption of the technology will be enough strategic partners that generate the demand for high quantities of product, which will drive down the cost and accelerate the adoption from early adopters to the main stream.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

We have shown our human-like arms via social media (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube) as well as at certain Defense-related tradeshows.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am most grateful to my wife, Jessica, who I met shortly after starting RE2 Robotics. She quit her job and joined me at RE2 in 2003. I was the typical engineer who was caught up in the technology more than in the business case. She had a strong corporate background and natural talent for business in general. She, too, was an entrepreneur. She encouraged and coached me. She motivated me to grow the business so that we could have a greater impact on the world. We still work together to this day. I am lucky to have her by my side both at home and at work!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Our technology saves lives. We allow humans to perform dangerous tasks from a safe distance. Our primary customers to date are Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians. However, we are not done!

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Focus early. When I founded RE2, we were essentially an extension of CMU’s NREC. We worked on some really interesting and challenging projects. We generated significant core technology and general know-how. Looking back, although it was a positive experience and we were running a profitable company, I realized that I perhaps got distracted from the goal of getting robots into the field to make a positive impact. We were in the weeds solving hard problems and having fun, but too opportunistic and not strategic. Looking back, I would have kicked the Jorgen of 2001 and said “stop for a moment and think about how you can have the greatest impact.” Mobile robotic arms eventually became our focus in 2006, but imagine how much further we would be today if we had an additional 5 years of focus under our belt!
  2. Don’t underestimate the value of business and marketing people. In 2001, I was a robotics engineer who thought that technology should be the focus. I thought that if you build something technically amazing, then business will come. I didn’t believe in going to tradeshows or networking, or any other marketing or business activities. After my wife, Jessica, came on board, I quickly learned that growth only comes through deliberate business development and marketing actions. Luckily, we hired very capable folks early enough in our history, which was just as important as the engineering in terms of our success!
  3. Delegate as soon as possible! As an entrepreneur, you quickly get into the habit of doing everything. There are typically not enough people in the early stages. However, as soon as you have enough employees, delegate! It is too easy for an entrepreneur to feel that he or she has to do everything. I held on to too many responsibilities along the way. It was not until recently that I realized that my work-life balance was not where it should be. But, I have learned to let go and trust those competent people I hired. As a result, although I have ultimate responsible for the company, I have a strong team who are willing and able to share carrying the load. Now I have the work-life balance that I want.
  4. Always ask for more than you think. We bootstrapped the company for 13 years before raising money from VCs in an A round. We raised $2.25M, where we would harden our core technology for commercial opportunities as well as cater the technology in pursuit of large Defense opportunities. Three years later, I realized I didn’t raise enough. Luckily, the Board approved a Series A extension for an additional $1.5M. Not every company will have supportive VCs, so always add some buffer for the inevitable unexpected circumstances!
  5. Get legal counsel before you even start! In 2001, I took it upon myself to read books on starting a company. I downloaded forms for incorporating a business in Pennsylvania. I submitted my forms to incorporate the business in PA. I was going to call the company “Robotics Engineering Excellence.” I submitted the paperwork. Denied! It turns out that in the state of PA, if you include the word “engineering” in the company name, you must be a Professional Engineer (PE), which I was not. So, “Robotics Engineering Excellence” became “REE”, which then became “re2”. Remember, I was an engineer at the time! So that is how we got the nerdy name that is really hard to spell. Years later, in order to ensure that people knew what we do and to make it easier to spell, we now write it “RE2 Robotics” (very redundant if you know what the “R” of “RE2 is!). But we still pronounce it as “R…E…Squared”. I bet a lawyer would have advised me of a different name (and many other minor mistakes I made by serving as my own legal advisor)!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I am a big proponent of providing every human with the same opportunity, regardless of race, gender, religion, etc. Humans are more alike than different. To truly learn this fact, people need to travel. They need to be exposed to different cultures and viewpoints. I am convinced that if one spends enough time with someone else who is perceived as “different” at first, that the person will soon discover that there is more in common than not. All humans want to be happy. We want to laugh, have fun, make progress, feel fulfilled, etc. The world is connected digitally now, but that does not create true human-human interaction. Could robotics help connect people for good? Perhaps robotic avatars could allow someone to virtually travel and meet others of other cultures as if they were actually there. Perhaps affordable autonomous travel (cars, planes, etc.) could better connect people. Perhaps robots in the home could be programmed to mimic people who are different to educate (with human emotion removed from at least one side).

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

As you have likely heard, “Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.” This is something that I strongly believe. I believe that any success I have been afforded is not so much about me, but rather a result of focusing on and taking care of those in my charge. To start a robot business, I simply created a vision. To bring a robot to life, mechanical, electrical, and software engineers must work in harmony. To bring a robot to market, business, operations, and marketing professionals must work in harmony. To create this harmony, people need to know that they are valued! This is how RE2 Robotics operates.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

RE2 Robotics has created true human-like robotic arms. Why is this important? The entire infrastructure of the planet has been designed for human beings! Any task that is dirty, dull, or dangerous in any vertical market segment can be addressed with the human equivalent, whether that system is controlled by a human remotely or that system operates autonomously. RE2 combines AI, computer vision, intuitive human-robot interfaces, and human-like robotic arms to help disrupt industries that are experiencing human-related challenges (labor shortages, dangerous jobs, etc.). How can we help you?

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Facebook: RE2Inc


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Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.