Charge! WiBotic’s Commander software plots the power plan for fleets of robots

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Alan Boyle
·4 min read
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WiBotic Commander on screen
WiBotic’s Commander software package keeps track of the charging status for a fleet of drones spread out over a wide swath of terrain — for example, the surroundings of Ellensburg, Wash. (WiBotic Graphic)

It’s hard enough to remember to keep your smartphone charged up, so can you imagine how much harder it’d be to track the charging status of dozens of drones or robots? Now WiBotic has an app for that: a software platform that manages the battery-charging routines for mobile devices that use its wireless charging system.

Today the seven-year-old Seattle startup unveiled its first software product, an energy management package called Commander.

“Commander was developed mostly through listening and learning from our customers who were building robots, and then deploying robots, and then deploying fleets,” said Ben Waters, the company’s CEO and co-founder.

WiBotic makes charging stations that a drone can drop onto, or that a robot can sidle up to, in order to top off its batteries and continue working without having to be plugged in. The technology is well-suited for aerial drones, warehouse robots, autonomous underwater vehicles — and even future rovers on the moon.

The system comes with a built-in control panel that lets operators set up a battery-charging schedule for each robot, but Waters said some of WiBotic’s customers wanted a more sophisticated system to control a whole fleet of robots in an orchestrated way.

“When companies start to deploy a robotic fleet, whether that fleet is five vehicles or 10 vehicles or 100,000 vehicles, the logistics behind charging can become very complicated,” he said.

That’s the need that Commander fills, for a price that’s calculated on a per-robot, per-month basis. (WiBotic is still fine-tuning its pricing schedule for the service.)

“It’s not a required product,” said Matt Carlson, Wibotic’s vice president for business development, “but we think with larger fleets it’ll provide a lot of benefit.”

Commander will let customers deploy a networked charging infrastructure for an entire fleet, regardless of battery chemistry, voltage or charge speed requirements.

Charging routines can be adjusted based on availability and time constraints. For example, the parameters can be tweaked to charge robots rapidly during the day, when there’s high demand; and slowly during the night, to maximize battery life.

For now, the Commander software is optimized for Wibotic’s hardware. But Waters can easily imagine expanding Commander’s reach to other types of devices.

“We really thought about it as something that might be applicable to any type of battery fleet — you know, hundreds of power tools that need to be charged up at a construction site,” he said. “The world’s growing in electrification in general. So while we’re starting with autonomous systems, we think Commander could be a useful software platform for a lot of battery-powered applications.”

Like workers at most other businesses, WiBotic’s 15 full-time employees have been facing challenges due to the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

“We are operating in a whole bunch of ZIP codes around the Greater Seattle area, and there are a couple of folks in Oregon as well,” Waters said. “We’ve had access to a lab facility, but it’s certainly challenging when there’s hardware in the mix. Reflecting back on the last year, that definitely had something to do with our efforts on the software side.”

Looking past the hardships, Waters believes the pandemic’s aftershocks and the rise of e-commerce could open up new opportunities.

“Robots have played a role in areas that have been constrained by COVID,” he said. “Robots have been needed because companies just need more people and robots to move things around in the warehouse.”

And then there’s the final frontier. WiBotic already has the moon rover project, but Waters is setting his sights even higher. He took special note of the fact that NASA’s Perseverance rover is due to deliver a mini-helicopter to Mars next week.

“We’re excited to see how the first drone on Mars performs,” Waters said. “I think if it performs well — or if it does not perform well — either way, hopefully it will inspire others to deploy more vehicles in space, and we’ll have a good charging and energy management platform available for those folks.”

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