Microsoft looking to get into the autonomous robot game

It seems Google is not the only company with moonshots.

Microsoft Research has been advertising for technologists to staff a new a research team known as the Aerial Informatics and Robotics (AIR) group, according to Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley.

The team would be charged with “building intelligent and autonomous flying agents that are safe and enable applications that can positively influence our society,” a k a “fleet of flying robots.” The AIR group is building on research Microsoft is doing in machine intelligence and robotics and is meant to assist with everything from micro-UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle/drones) to commercial jetliners, according to Microsoft’s own description on its Research site.

The Aerial Informatics and Robotics (AIR) group states their goals as:

“This synthesis of algorithms and systems enables aerial vehicles such as quadrotors, soaring gliders, small aircrafts, and commercial airliners. The applications scenarios include Monitoring for Precision Agriculture, Pathogen Surveillance, weather sensing, enabling digital connectivity etc.”

Apparently Microsoft is quite serious about this, writing in a recent job posting for Microsoft Research’s Strategic Prototyping team for “outstanding SDEs (software development engineers) to work on different aspects of robotics with the goal of actually deploying autonomous robots.

Microsoft also has other Robotics teams, such as the Ambient Computing & Robotics team.

“The Ambient Computing & Robotics team is creating applications for the era where computer vision, AI-based cognition, and autonomous electro-mechanicals pervade the workplace. We are using this convergence to transform physical work in construction sites, logistics yards, baggage handling areas, hospital corridors, factories, restaurants, farms and more. A key aspect of this work is how valuable physical assets are utilised and made available for optimal, on-demand sharing within an organisation and within the economy at large.”

In another job posting they noted:

“We are building a new suite of apps designed for the physical world and made of cloud services that connect digital devices and sensors together, backed by state-of-the-art learning algorithms to recognise users, activities and assist users in coordinating tasks, handling emergency situations in the real world.

“Are you excited to work on a V1 project that combines hardware (cameras, mics, etc.), software (cloud services, ML, computer vision, virtual reality) and will redefine how people are empowered in physical spaces? Do you want to be part of the vanguard for the 4th industrial revolution? Then come and join our team!”

Mary Jo Foley also notes that in September 2016, Microsoft invested an unspecified amount in Sarcos Robotics, a developer of dexterous industrial robots for use in “unstructured environments.” Sarcos makes a “Guardian” line of robots that are meant to perform dangerous tasks in construction, manufacturing, oil and gas, mining, infrastructure inspections, logistics, public safety and military.

Microsoft’s unveil of the HoloLens was a complete surprise, despite a number of patents and leaks in the months and years prior to this. A robot is somewhat harder to hide up your sleeve, but it seems we should not be surprised if such a device turns up at Microsoft’s next big event.

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