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Robotic start-up nation
Author  Rivka Borochov

 Robotic start-up nation

From border patrol SUVs that spot infiltrators to fetal surgery robots that swim through the amniotic sac, world "firsts" from Israel also include smart gadgets that clean your pool and know where to spray fertilizers on a farmer's fields.

Israel has become a hotbed of robotic technologies. Its academics are mastering both the mind and body of robotics for solutions in security and defense, medical devices and agriculture. The innovation starts at Israeli universities and ends with commercialized products such as SpineAssist, the new x-ray and CT scan guide manufactured by Mazor Robotics.


Prof. Moshe Shoham decided to go into medical robotics after assembling robots at California's Stanford University 12 years ago.


There is only a handful of systems that actually perform in the operating room today; maybe five," says Prof. Moshe Shoham from the Robotics Laboratory at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, whose research lay the foundation for SpineAssist. One of these five is from Israel and it's the only robotic device in the world for spinal surgery.

Other innovative technologies on the way include an unmanned border patrol all-terrain vehicle, which works as a fleet and "thinks" like a team.

Robots with a mind of their own

The term "robotics," as Israeli engineers define it, does not refer to a remote-controlled operating system needing a human to instigate action. Israeli researchers from the core fields of computer sciences and mechanical engineering are transplanting these promising technologies to futuristic robots that think for themselves.

"We go far beyond mechanical engineering," explains Prof. Gal Kaminka of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. "Mechanical engineering is about building the machine. Engineering is important to give you the body, but it does nothing for the brains. That's where computer science fits in - and everyone knows Israel's reputation is in that field."

Without computers, he continues, "you'd basically get a dead body with some sort of control over it. You can tell the 'robot' where to walk, but not really why or how. There are no brains in it. That's the job of computer science and artificial intelligence. In my lab, I am focused on the 'minds,' and thus work with other people's 'bodies.' What Israel provides in a competitive sense is an excellence in software - the brains for existing bodies. In this area we can really excel, and can easily be a world leader in robotics."

Israel does not have state funding to develop robotics, but neither does the United States, points out Kaminka, whose lab is the largest in Israel in terms of numbers of students and post-doctorate fellows.

Crowd control and robotic soccer

"We conduct a diverse set of investigations," Kaminka says. "All are centered around social intelligence: groups of robots, simulated entities, computer games - anything involving the human social condition is of interest. We get inspiration from psychology."

In addition to computer scientists and engineers, his interdisciplinary team includes social psychologists to help devise better algorithms for the "brains" of robots meant to work in teams. Social psychology, he says, has developed a number of important theories as to what people find important in each other when they are in a social setting. These theories serve as the inspiration for algorithms that enable robots to behave as humans do.

As for applications, "We can build a simulated crowd for training police to deal with demonstrations, or for training authorities on how to deal with evacuations, as we are doing with the University of Southern California for the security forces in the Los Angeles LAX airport."

Another top application coming from the Kaminka lab is a robotic soccer team programmed to score goals against other universities' robotic teams from around the world in an annual RoboCup competition. Kaminka's team currently places 16th in the world, thanks to a technical meltdown at the last competition in Singapore.

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"There's a very exciting story of which RoboCup is only a symbol, a front: it's the story of the birth of Israeli robotics in recent years. This is reflected not only by academic efforts such as RoboCup, but also what is happening in industry, with both large defense integrators as well as small startups that are popping up," says Kaminka.

"There's a sense that the market is moving at an accelerated rate," adds the researcher, whose work is funded by the US Air Force and other bodies including the European Network of Excellence and the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation.

"After years of having my Ph.D. and masters students graduate to jobs in larger companies, suddenly two of them are off to start their own robotics companies and one of them, Cogniteam, actually sponsored our robot soccer team," Kaminka adds.

His aim is to graduate eight new robotics experts every year from Bar-Ilan, some of whom will go to industry. Bar-Ilan graduates are involved in Friendly Robotics, which makes Robomow lawn-mowing robots; and Maytronics, which markets pool-cleaning robots in the United States.

The robotic lawn mower was founded in 1995 by Udi Peless and Shai Abramson, who've also developed other robots for the household including a robotic vacuum cleaner. Robomow is their best seller, and comes in several product lines as a cost-free way to keep lawns trimmed without having to nag the kids. It is now sold in the United States, Europe, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Maytronics was founded in 1983 and pioneered an automated pool-cleaning system called the Dolphin. Used in private and commercial pools, today the Dolphin is distributed to an international market, meeting high environmental standards as it is an energy-efficient product that saves water while it cleans the pool floor, walls and waterline. Since it works to reduce bacteria and algae, it also reduces the amount of chemicals needed to keep the pool water healthy.

Unmanned border patrols

A Bar-Ilan project to turn 4x4 SUVs into robots to patrol the Israeli borders is now being piloted in Israel by G-NIUS with the support of the Defense Ministry. Human border patrols are vulnerable to Hamas and Hizbullah terrorists eager to target Israeli soldiers, or worse, capture them for ransom, as was the case with captive soldier Gilad Shalit.

A smart team of SUV robots could also help with 24/7 patrolling on the long Texas-California border with Mexico, while a human team remains on guard safely away from the border, ready for activation when border infiltrators or drug-runners are spotted.

"These are huge 4x4s that drive themselves up and down borders," says Kaminka. "They supply video feeds and sensing information for border patrols to monitor what's going on. This information is transmitted to human operators sitting safely a few miles away, and they can intervene if necessary. A patrol unit could send a robot on smaller missions to discover a problem. Humans can also drive the machines if necessary."

Multi-robot patrolling leaves no area unwatched. If the robot only made basic left and right movements to patrol the border, it would be easy for an infiltrator to track these movements and find a hole in the robot's vision.

But by using social psychology and randomizing the movements of a fleet of robots, several vehicles can be dispatched at once, working in tandem and communicating with each other to spot suspicious behavior.

Robotic search and rescue

For military and civilian applications, Kaminka's lab is developing a special team of PointBots - search-and-rescue robots that can make a map of their location in the field and quickly plot their own trajectory of where to rescue a victim from a toppled building, or a soldier from a terrorist enclave.

"We can send in a group of robots to enter a building that's collapsed, or to a place we might feel is hazardous. Ours aren't tele-operated devices working on a remote control - devices that can get lost, and which require an enormous amount of time to survey an area. We're giving robots the brain to build a map of where they should spread out and do search and rescue on their own."

Kaminka is working with two Israeli startup companies to develop PointBots for surveying and simulation. ODF Optronics is handling the body and mechanical design, and Cogniteam, made up of his former students, is working on the brain.

Medical robotics

In the medical field of robotics applications, Technion Prof. Moshe Shoham is a world leader. His SpineAssist robot uses CT and x-ray data to provide surgeons with precise guidance to manipulate instruments during spinal surgery, thereby minimizing damage to vital organs and surrounding nerves. It is in use daily in operating theaters in the United States, Germany, the Netherlands and Russia.

Also in development in Shoham's lab is the TIPCAT, a robot that can "crawl" inside the human body to perform endoscopic surgery; and the tiny Virob robot, recently featured on CNN, which can bring a cancer drug directly to a tumor or can be outfitted with a camera for inside-the-body diagnostic purposes.

Another medical robotic device, still years away from the market, could help doctors operate in utero. "What we would like to do is insert a small capsule inside the uterus for fetal surgery and are working on how this could swim in the amniotic fluid for diagnostics and therapeutics," he says.

Shoham decided to go into medical robotics after assembling robots at California's Stanford University 12 years ago. The field was in its first stages at the time but now medical robotic devices are in great demand.

"Whenever I lecture before medical doctors at international conferences, they are always giving me new ideas. We don't know yet where it can go. The field is really big. But for the past five years, we've seen an exponential growth of medical robots and there are now hundreds of labs around the world."

Fixing hearts with a snake

You may think a snake is the last thing you'd want slithering around your heart. But a new invention developed by American and Israeli scientists could save your life. Pioneered by Dr. Alon Wolf from the Technion and Prof. Howie Choset of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, the CardioArm is a small, flexible medical "snake" that makes heart surgeries safer and more effective.

"We are working with robotic snakes for search-and-rescue operations. So we started thinking: if we can send snakes to crawl inside buildings to look for survivors, then why can't we send the same snake inside our body to fix it?" says Alon, whose lab works with Cardiorobotics, a medical device startup, to commercialize the CardioArm in heart-related endoscopic surgeries.

Another robotic surgical application was developed in the lab of Prof. Yael Edan at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev with the help of European Union funding. This device, now commercialized as Gestix and being tested in Washington, D.C., fights contamination in the operating room by allowing surgeons to manipulate digital images using hand motions rather than touching a screen, keyboard or mouse and thereby compromising sterility.

Walking on walls


Dr. Amir Shapiro of Ben Gurion University is developing robots that walk on walls. (Photo: Dani Machlis, Ben Gurion University)


Not far from Edan's lab, Dr. Amir Shapiro is developing robots that walk on walls and perform many other curiosities. "We have walking robots, flying robots, snake robots, multi-robots or a group of robots, agriculture robots including an autonomous date sprayer and an autonomous vineyard sprayer, and a robot that can automate fruit picking," Shapiro says.

Also in development is Bamper, a robot whose purpose is to improve balance in the elderly, and a four-legged robot for defense purposes. "We actually build the robots in the real environment, not only as simulations," says Shapiro. "We also like to build the bodies as well," using non-linear controls and stabilization systems.

Due to limited funding, Israeli robotics experts find themselves working more often competitively than collaboratively, he points out. "We could achieve much more if would could work together and have each of us specializing in their own part," he laments. "Still, we achieve a lot and show we can compete in the world successfully."


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Not just sci-fi

One of Israel's newer and less known universities also boasts a number of prominent robotics projects: since 2006, the Ariel University Center of Samaria has its own Center for Robotics Research and Applications. There, the researchers are looking to create military robots, medical robots and robots in a new field of road safety. Like their colleagues at Bar-Ilan University, the researchers at Ariel combine psychology with computer science and industrial engineering.

At the lab of Prof. Zvi Shiller, researchers focus on improving the safety of extra-terrestrial off-road and terrestrial, earth-based road vehicles. From working on robots that could guide moon and Mars robots on future missions, the scientists are also working on creating robots that can map the safety of today's high highways and can help plan the roadways of tomorrow.

Creating motion in confined spaces is the specialty of Prof. Shraga Shoval and his lab team. When external navigation cannot be implemented - for example, in pipes, tunnels and underground -- Shoval's independent positioning system may be able to guide the whole industry of robotics. Drawing on his previous commercial work at Chrysler, Shoval is also working on developing skiing, gliding and walking robots.

Kaminka knows that artificial intelligence and robots who think for themselves sounds very much like science fiction, so he puts it into perspective. "It's just software development. We're not going to ever excel at manufacturing robots; the labor is not here. Or the raw materials. But our edge will be software and patents. Israel is already building really good software and that's Israel's future if you look at hi-tech. My vision is to jumpstart robotics intellectual property in the form of software and patents in mechanical engineering and robotics - robots with brains."


Automated masseuse, octopus


Getting a rubdown from a robot: The WheeMe massager created by Israeli company DreamBots.


Showing the world the lighter side of Israeli robotics is the company DreamBots, which has developed the world's first massage robot. Showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January, DreamBots' hand-sized WheeMe features four wheels and a massaging "finger" that gives users a tickling sensation as the device maneuvers independently across a person's back.

Built by Eyal Avramovich, WheeMe can't fall or roll off the back, thanks to feedback from built-in sensors that assure it won't go beyond the sides of the back or below the waistline.

Going from exploring the back to exploring the ocean floor, another world's first is a soft-bodied "octopus" robot now being developed by Prof. Binyamin Hochner from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem together with Prof. Tamar Flash from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. They are part of an international team collaborating on this four-year project, which has many exciting implications for environmental scientists.

The octopus robot is intended to explore tiny crevices on the ocean floor to aid researchers delving into questions about global warming. This kind of tool would be especially pertinent for scientists who want to explore fragile coral reef ecosystems without causing further damage. This many-tentacled creature also has potential applications in medicine as well as search-and-rescue missions, alerting human teams where to dig for victims trapped in collapsed buildings.

A soft-bodied robot isn't as easy to build as some might think, but it offers many advantages over the stiff robotic arms now being used, Hochner says. Unlike creatures with skeletons, a real octopus has unlimited ranges of motion in 360 degrees. That's what the scientists aim to achieve. At his Octopus Laboratory, he and the Israeli team are working on the complex task of building artificial muscles for the robotic octopus based on observing and copying the mechanics of octopus movement. The team is also developing an artificial sucker system, sensory system and nervous system for its robot.

Top Israeli Robotics Researchers

Bar-Ilan University
•  Gal Kaminka
•  Eli Kolberg

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
•  Yael Edan
•  Amir Shapiro
•  Hugo Guterman
•  Sigal Berman

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
•  Binyamin Hochner 

Technion Israel Institute of Technology
•  Moshe Shoham
•  Elon Rimon
•  Miriam Zacksenhouse
•  Anath Fischer

Tel Aviv University
•  Gabi Kosha

Israeli College of Management, Rishon Lezion
•  Yehuda Elmaliach

Ariel University Center of Samaria
•  Shraga Shoval
•  Nir Schwab
•  Zvi Shiller

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