February 8, 2018

How Humatics is Revolutionizing the Way We Interact With Robots

In the late 1980s, Humatics Co-Founder and CEO David Mindell joined the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a nonprofit research facility located on Cape Cod dedicated to the study of marine science. An electrical engineer by training, he joined to work on undersea precision navigation in a group led by Bob Ballard that previously worked on an expedition that found the wreck of the RMS Titanic three years before Mindell joined.

David Mindell Humatics
Co-Founder and CEO David Mindell.

The team would find many other shipwrecks together over the following years, in locations like Guadalcanal and the Black Sea. In order to explore shipwrecks under the ocean, robots were utilized to traverse the deep, dark waters to make accurate 3D computer models of shipwrecks. Mindell helped build the extremely precise sonars that—in conjunction with cameras—would help these robots explore and model those shipwrecks.

“The early undersea cameras were roving eyeballs, and that’s great because it puts an eyeball where you normally can’t put one,” Mindell said. “But when you put precision navigation on top of the eyeball, suddenly the robot becomes a precision platform to make a map or 3D model of anything you can measure. It opens up a whole new world of the things you can do with it.”

It was during this time that Mindell got “hooked” on the idea of precision navigation, and how he could take this technology out of the ocean. This was the inspiration for Humatics.

“The idea of precision navigation was that I always wanted to do with radio waves what I had done with ultrasound in the ocean, so that it could be done in terrestrial environments—which is really where most of the human, industrial, and economic world lives.”

But while the idea and passion for this technology was ever present, Humatics was not founded until 2015. After Woods Hole, Mindell enjoyed a 20-plus year academic career as a professor at MIT, during which time he wrote five books and taught students about aerospace engineering and the history of technology.

But eventually the time was right, and about three-and-a-half years ago, Mindell connected with co-founder Gary Cohen, “a lawyer and veteran company builder from the biotech world of Kendall Square,” as well as the person who would eventually become Humatics’ CTO, Greg Charvat. Mindell describes Charvat as “the great young guru of small and short-range radar devices.”

Humatics was formed, with a mission to take the undersea precision navigation technology and use it to revolutionize the way industrial machines relate to people and their surroundings.

The company is currently developing the Spatial Intelligence Platform, which includes its microlocation system and analytics software. The system itself is a sensor made of “inexpensive radio-frequency technology,” which can, “pinpoint multiple, moving targets with millimeter-scale precision, vastly outperforming existing systems at a fraction of the cost.”

While the platform has not launched just yet, they’ve begun piloting it with partners in industrial automation and manufacturing. This, Mindell says, is just one example where many Humatics sensors will find their first homes.

“As a company, we found that industrial automation is the most immediate need and the best use for this technology early on, so we’re building products that will enable very precise interactions between people and robots, people and machines, people and infrastructure, and even between the robots and different kinds of machines.”

The technology can be applied to all kinds of robots in a factory setting, allowing humans and robots to collaborate in a safer environment.

“Think about a mobile robot that’s driving around a factory, and may be okay navigating a hallway using light or other sensors on its own, but then it wants to come into proximity with another workstation, factory employee, or another part of a product that’s being made. Our systems will enable it to navigate down to the millimeter in proximity and, in fact, do precision operations from this mobile platform.”

Moreover, consider large automated fulfillment centers: huge warehouses where robots fulfill orders via large fiducials—the objects that robots use in their field of view to act as a visual point of reference. Humatics’ microlocation systems allow such factories to get away from fiducials altogether. In fact, six months ago, the company hired Michael Barbehenn, who helped build the software architecture for Kiva Systems (now Amazon Robotics), as the company’s VP and Principal Software Architect.

Humatics has 47 employees in their Kendall Square office and other sites, and the rapidly-growing team is stacked with expertise. They have added Steve Toebes as Chief Product Officer, who was most recently SVP of Product Development and Operations at Rethink Robotics. They are also supported by two major founding advisors: Bob Ballard, who worked with Mindell at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and David Scott, MIT engineer, commander of Apollo 15, and the seventh person to walk on the moon.

Between its strong talent and fundraising success (the company closed an $18.1M Series A this past September), Humatics finds itself in a good place. And as a robotics company in the Boston tech scene, that last part may be more literal than figurative.

“We’re bringing together the worlds of radar and robotics, and Boston is the best place to start a company like this because we’re near MIT and also this whole generation of robotics companies, like Rethink, iRobot, and Symbotic. There’s an ecosystem of robotics that we draw on now,” said Mindell. “We like to think of ourselves as having a very New England story.”

Alexander Culafi is a Staff Writer for VentureFizz. You can follow him on Twitter @culafia

Images provided by Humatics.​