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Never distracted, forgetful or tired; never sick or on vacation; always alert and ready for duty -- mobile security robots, in any number of sizes and shapes, are poised to become the first line of defense against all forms of intrusion.
Today, the monitoring and security model for most large buildings looks like this: A main security console in the lobby, employee and visitor badges, interior detectors and alarm systems, locking systems, a battery of closed circuit television cameras, viewing screens for watching the live camera feeds, and a small force of guards patrolling the area with flashlights and batons, on the lookout for trouble.
It's a model that's worked well enough over the years, although there's an element of risk involved when the guards must respond to alarms in an uncertain situation. But the convergence of intelligent sensors, embedded systems, streamlined remote control mechanisms and innovative robotic applications promises to reduce that risk while tightening security.
Far better to use remotely controlled robots to patrol the building, spot anomalies, and notify security personnel over a wireless network or via a hand held, PDA-like device. And that's all possible right now, using available technology.
This article examines the current security model and posits a new, robotic-based paradigm that augments human security staff, provides instantaneous response and protects guards from unforeseen confrontations.
The Contemporary Security Model
Why do I rob banks? 'Cause that's where the money is.
Clyde had it right at the time. Today, though, virtually any mid-sized to large business owns assets that would dwarf Depression-era banks. Physical assets such as desks, chairs, shelves, potted plants and the coffee maker are insured and replaced relatively easily. But the information that resides on servers, desktop PCs and in file cabinets is the real heart of the business and must be protected against intruders.
In this volatile age, the safety and welfare of employees also looms large. We've all seen reports of a disgruntled former employee "going postal" and exacting revenge on former co-workers and management. Employees want and deserve protection against random violence and it's the job of on-site security personnel to provide it.
Concerns over physical safety, as well as the confidentiality of critical business documents, proprietary manufacturing processes and computerized data, have spawned a huge security sector. Today, security is an estimated $10 billion industry with more than 10,000 US firms providing some sort of security.
As security giant ADT puts it, "Security for your business is no longer an afterthought. It is an integral component in the design and structure of your top-level operations and a key investment in the future of your business. Properly protecting your business, your employees, and other assets is now a top-of-mind concern and plays a greater role in the every-day decision-making process." (Source: ADT web site)
The security industry's primary tools are stationary video cameras and a staff of security personnel. Guards man the front desk and patrol the corridors. Video cameras capture all activities within their fields of vision -- both innocuous and suspicious.
If the cameras spot an anomaly, guards are dispatched to investigate. In the great majority of cases, the anomaly turns out to be non-threatening. On those rare occasions when an actual threat to life, limb or corporate data is valid, guards must immediately ascertain the severity of the threat and make instant decisions that may affect lives and property.
Realistically, that's a lot to ask. Even highly trained police officers sometimes make errors in judgement. It's simply not reasonable to expect less experienced security staff to instantly make the right decision and take the appropriate action. And yet, that's exactly how the current model works: Guards have split seconds in which to make the right choice. Any lapse in judgement could prove fatal to employees or, at the very least, compromise critical business information.
There is, however, a better system. And the emerging generation of service robotics points the way. Never distracted, forgetful or tired; never sick or on vacation; always alert and ready for duty -- mobile security robots, in any number of sizes and shapes, are poised to become the first line of defense against all forms of intrusion.
These favorable qualities have boosted the overall North American robotics market by 13 percent over the first nine months of 2004, according to the Robotics Industries Association (RIA), the industry's trade group.
Active Media Research takes a longer view. "Mobile robot sales are expected to soar from $665 million in 2000 to more than $17 billion in 2005. Technologies are such that decades of labor in artificial intelligence, sensing, navigation, communications and response are beginning to bear fruit in the form of practical mobile robots."
Now, service robotics is beginning to penetrate the building security segment as early adopters move to take advantage of several key developments.
Service Robotics: A Better Way
Service robotics -- a branch of the robotics field that consists of semi- or fully-autonomous mobile robots that assist humans, service equipment and perform other autonomous functions -- has recently become more viable because of a confluence of technical and market factors. Robotic devices are getting more affordable due to the availability of lower cost sensors, motors and mobile communication components. Simultaneously, robotic devices are becoming more practical due to technology advances in mapping and localization control systems, and in artificial intelligence.
Well-equipped mobile security robots can "walk" a beat in a pre-determined pattern (or create their own patterns, for efficiency or to avoid predictability), checking basic functions like heating and cooling, power consumption and air quality. They can also relay streaming video feeds over a WiFi network back to a central command console, where security staff can evaluate real-time data for anomalies and threats. Robots are less intrusive than armed guards, and their information is objective and unfiltered by human bias.
There's good news for workers in the security sector as well. Unlike technologies that displace human staff, security robotics promises to work in conjunction with security personnel to provide superior safety zones and secure working environments.
Designing the Ideal Security Bot
So you're considering deploying mobile security robots. What characteristics and capabilities should they have? Here's what the robotics experts at CoroWare suggest:
Adaptability: Security robots can be easily configured to follow different or random paths, or generate their own paths to avoid predictability. The robot constantly maps its environment, to keep track of furniture that may have been moved by employees, track the optimal patrol routes, and ensure that all materials that should be in the patrol area remain there.
Sensor-ability: Security robots should be able to handle basic building management functions as well as their primary security tasks. To that end, sensors that relay normal vision, infrared vision, low-light vision, temperature, humidity and audio sensing are among the basic equipment that robots should carry. These systems give it the ability to identify virtually any situation that a human security guard could. For example, it could hear the sound of a window being broken, or feel that a room is unusually cold as a result of a broken window, and it could see or hear an intruder directly.
Sensor integration: To take advantage of existing security systems, on-board sensors should integrate with static video cameras and alarm systems. Sounding an alarm, notifying security guards, or even contacting the local fire or police departments could all be valid actions for the robot to take upon sensing a disturbance.
AI capabilities: Such a robotic system would, by necessity, have some degree of artificial intelligence. This would be useful for identifying what perceived anomalies are important enough to notify human security guards or outside agencies, and even use the guards’ reactions to improve the robot’s idea of what's important.
Fail-safe: Robots must remain useful -- or at least not become dangerous to building occupants -- if the wireless network goes down or is jammed by an intruder.
It's important to stress that the robot is only a part of an overall security system. It functions as a mobile platform for moving sensors around a given area. The overall responsibility for building security still rests on human ability to interpret signals from the robot and take appropriate action.
Standards: Increasing Compatibility and Reducing Costs
Historically, IT solutions have been most affordable when application and systems interfaces are based on open standards. Mobile service robotics solutions are no exception. When multiple vendors offer products and solutions based on open standards -- instead of relying on one or two proprietary vendors -- customers can effectively improve the quality, reduce the cost, and mitigate the risk of deploying mobile service robots and any accompanying security applications and systems. Although mobile service robotics is still in its early days, open standards are already contributing to cost reductions in development and deployment.
First, mobile service robots based on Intel’s de-facto standard platform are the most cost-effective platform today. Vendors who then couple a standard hardware platform with an operating system that supports open standards, such as Windows XP Embedded or Embedded Linux, can offer their customers a very cost-effective robotic platform as the foundation. The use of off-the-shelf libraries and de-facto accepted design patterns, such as Microsoft .NET Framework and other third-party libraries, also play a part in reducing time-to-market and lowering the overall cost of design and development.
Next, mobile service robots that incorporate open standard communications interfaces greatly reduce the cost of integrating these platforms into a cost effective solution. Two communications technologies that many are already familiar with are WiFi and TCP/IP. One emerging standard communications technology currently in the specification phase is JAUS, or Joint Architecture for Unmanned Systems. JAUS comprises a robotic communications and management protocol.
Finally, mobile service robots that incorporate and adhere to standard manageability models will help drive down the cost of operating mobile security solutions. These solutions can be more easily integrated into existing IT and security operations procedures. Historically, solutions that incorporate effective management technologies and procedures have significantly reduced the total cost of ownership over the life cycle of the system
They're Here Now
In the next three to five years, intelligent networked mobile platforms and manipulators will permeate the fabric of our society just as computers do today.
Security robotics isn't science fiction. The concept of patrolling service robots maintaining order in manufacturing facilities, warehouses and office complexes is quite real. Key technologies -- feature recognition, mapping and localization, WiFi, streaming video and standard communications protocols -- are all falling into place.
According to an article on Geek.com, this past August the Japanese security firm Secom introduced what it claims is the first non-human security guard on the market. "Robot X," as it's called, is meant to complement existing security staff. Secom plans to lease the robots for a monthly charge of 300,000 yen (US$2,865), roughly half the fee charged by the company for a human guard.
The basics: A 260-pound robot on six wheels, Robot X is about three feet tall and can either be set to patrol a pre-defined area or can be controlled by a human via WiFi. Its security measures include the ability to chase intruders at a speed of roughly six miles per hour for up to 15 miles; record high-definition video; and play back a pre-recorded sound file or act as a conduit for a guard's voice.
Robot X is also equipped with a form of smoke attack. It can unleash a large cloud of harmless smoke around the intruder in an attempt to confuse.
Of course, a reasonably in-shape intruder could outrun the robot, or simply climb a flight of stairs to escape. Still, it's a good bet that the designers of the next generation Robot X are probably working on those deficiencies as we speak.
Closer to home, MSNBC reports that the Air Force is testing four-wheeled robots at a Florida Panhandle air base to determine whether the machines could be used to complement human guards. They can be programmed to patrol specific areas and alert an operator to anything suspicious. The robots have loudspeakers and microphones for questioning intruders and can be equipped with remotely fired weapons, like an M-16 rifle or pepper spray.
Typical of military contracts, the price is outlandish; these Air Force robots can cost as much as $500,000 apiece. The same feature set built on standard platforms and operating systems would cost considerably less.
According to analyst estimates, we seem to be in the midst of a worldwide explosion in the service robotics field. In the US, companies like CoroWare are at the forefront of security robotics. Employing off-the-shelf hardware platforms, embedded operating systems and emerging telecommunications standards like JAUS, the new generation of security robots is ready to provide the first line of defense against all forms of intrusion. As standards drive costs down and innovation drives functionality up, we'll see a steady rise in robotic security deployment, making security guards' jobs easier and safer.
And as robots prove themselves worthy of inclusion in any advanced security plan, they'll start cropping up in warehouses, office buildings, manufacturing facilities, military installations -- everywhere there's a need for frontline security.
About the Author
Lloyd Spencer is president and CEO of CoroWare, a systems integration firm that specializes in integrating robotic applications with off-the-shelf hardware and standard operating systems.
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