Iowa Precision Robotics

From Various Media Archives

IPR Logo, 1984

Iowa Precision Robotics, Ltd. (Formerly Iowa Precision Machine, Ltd., and later on Ability Technologies Corp.) was a Robotics company that ran from 1982 to 1992.

The company was most well known for its Marvin Mark I robot.

History[edit | edit source]

The company would be founded in 1982 by Dave Gossman, Matt Plagman, and Dan Knoblauch as Iowa Precision Machine, Ltd.. They would begin work on their first robot, Marvin, in the basement of a farm. Gene E. Halling would also later join in to the crew.[1]

Before even having a working prototype, they would advertise their machine in Robotics Age in September of that year for potential buyers. The name 'Marvin' would stand for "Motile Anthropomorphic Robot ??? (You figure out what "V","I", & "N' stand for.)". The robot would be at a starting price of $1,495, with a general set of schematics listed, and a crude drawing of a geometric robot on two wheels.[2]

By January of 1983, Marvin's schematics would be fleshed out to more finalized specs. It would also now have a purchasable option to interface with Apple II and TRS-80 computers. The price would increase by $5, alongside a $15 operator's manual now being available for purchase. The drawing would be replaced with a more fleshed out sketch, featuring smooth curves, jointed arms, and a four wheel body.[3]

First Look[edit | edit source]

March 1983

By March the first photo look at Marvin would be unveiled, alongside the ability to pre-order the robot. This would keep a similar design to the previous sketch, but would have no signs of bendable arms or hands, despite being marketed as having them. This leads to it possibly being an advertising prop, or an earlier prototype before hands were decided on. At this point the CPU would be unveiled, a Motorola 68000- a high tech inclusion at the time. Additional support for infra red communication between Marvin and terminals/printers was also stated to be available soon.[4]

In September the full schematics would be unveiled. Supporting 128kb RAM, expandable to 512kb or 8mb, a 16kb ROM, 2 RS232 ports, a parallel-port, an 8-slot S-100/IEEE-696 expansion bus, an S-100 card for the servo controllers, and the main CPU to support CP/M 68k and Fourth operating systems. Its arms would also now claim to have six axis of movement, which could pick up objects up to 5 pounds. The company had also now officially changed its name to Iowa Precision Robotics Ltd..[5]

Marvin Mark I[edit | edit source]

Marvin Mark 1, 1984

In March of 1984 Marvin would make his first proper debut with his final design, now dubbed Marvin Mark I. This would be a slimmer chassis with the proper rotating arms. He would be shown outside the company's offices on the sidewalk for a day, which managed to bring local attention to the company. By this point the company would now have 13 employees working on the robots, with the first unit planned to be completed within the coming weeks. [6]

Preorders were beginning to ramp up around this time. Six Marvin's would be ordered by a prop supplier in Hollywood[7], NASA would purchase one as well[8]. Multiple firms wanted to lease the robot for television commercials.[7] Around this time someone named Bill R. would tour the Milford office due to an interest in using the robot at Helman Engineering as an automated traffic controller for a client. There he would spot many parts for units ready to be assembled, with two seen in pictures mostly complete.[9]

IPRC 1984[edit | edit source]

By April the robot would gain a voice input module to speak with.[6] He would also be given a black painted variant, which Dan Knoblauch would claim as a "spooky" "ominous" variant for owners who "want[ed] him as an attack robot".[10] This variant would soon debut at the The First International Personal Robot Congress & Exposition on April 13th. There he would be brought front and center for the first time to the robotics world alongside Androbot's Topo II and other contemporaries.[11] By this point, the newer model would now have an asking price of $5,995.[12]

Continued Production[edit | edit source]


Back in Iowa, Dan would do a local interview discussing Marvin. Unlike other robotics companies, who would skirt around the issue, he would note what Marvin alongside most other commercial robots lacked in- they couldn't climb vertical surfaces, they couldn't understand or visualize what they were interacting with, and they needed precise inputs and instructions from the user of their surroundings and tasks otherwise they'd fail them. He also noted that Marvin had no safety features, "Are you going to run him into your T.V. set a couple of times? Would you let him loose in a room with your children? With your dog?...". Later referring to his uncontrollable grippers- "I can just see him going up and ripping someone's knee cap off".[13]

In September of that year, Iowa's governor Terry Branstad would sign a proclamation declaring September 30th through October 6th to be the "Iowa High Tech Week". At the signing, Marvin would be there to hand him the paper, though notably his grippers were holding a bit too tight to the page. By this point the company had reduced to 10 employees, but planned to expand to 25 within the next six months.[14] By the end of the year, the robot's price had also now jumped to $6,175.[15]

Downfall[edit | edit source]

By 1985 however, things fell silent at the company for the first half of the year. Reporters tried to get updates with the company, but found their phone had been disconnected. In July, David Gossman managed to speak with press. "We've just gone through a really critical period for cash flow". Most of the company's staff had been laid off. The company did claim to have successfully shipped a Marvin robot within that time frame though, and had four more coming up. A $400,000 deal had also been struck to keep the company afloat longer, which had already racked up previously over $250,000 in development.[14] It would be confirmed later that despite having 22 confirmed orders for Marvin, only four would be finished and shipped.[16] The company would soon lead into bankruptcy, and wouldn't speak publicly for a long while.[17]

Futura[edit | edit source]

Futura, 1988

David would continue to attend conferences with a spare Marvin unit however. This would be first ever RESNA conference in 1985 going over rehabilitation technology, and then the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in 1986. At the '86 conference, he would take a friend with him- Kent Lachner, who was able to see that Marvin was significantly ahead of other robots for the time. This led Kent to partnering with David at the company to continue on. By this point, they were now working in the back of an old school building with barely any money.

Finally, later in 1987, an order would come in- from a pizza restaurant in Rome looking for a robotic waitress. They would set a $5,500 down payment, and plan to pay $22,000 total once the robot was shipped. Just as the company began to scramble for the order, another request would come in just a week later to build a robot designed for the handicapped, likely tipped from the attendance to RESNA just before. Both robots would begin production.[18][19]

The waitress robot would decide to build off of a spare Marvin unit the company had, now meaning Marvin Mark II was in production. Marvin would now be set to stand 6 feet tall with bendable knees, alongside switching the voice module to speak Italian. Marvin would receive a new name however, now going by Futura, who would begin debuting in magazines by 1988. Futura would shift their appearance to look more human like, replacing the crash-dummy looking head with a black-haired mannequin.[20]

Ability Technologies Corp[edit | edit source]

Kent Lachner would at the same time start a marketing company for IPR's robots called Ability Technologies Corp, now based in Melvin Iowa. There he could advertise Futura and their upcoming robot for the handicapped as robots for accessibility.

This second robot, built further off of Futura, which technically makes it Marvin Mark III, would be called the PSR-1.This new robot would focus on helping handicapped individuals using "Tele-presence". Where a camera would be installed in the robot's head, allowing it to transmit what its seeing back to the user while being in a completely different room. Its CPU would also be upgraded to an IBM-compatible personal computer.[21]

Final Works[edit | edit source]

A year later in February of 1990, the final update on the company would be recorded. Futura would finally be ready to ship to Italy by the next month, and a robot called Versa Base would also be seen at the company which could dance. Versa Base was most likely a rename of the PSR-1, but its not certain.[22] After this point, no more info on the company would surface outside of two patent filings[23][24], and it would later close in 1992.

Founder Deaths[edit | edit source]

All three founders would die in the 2000's-2010's. David Gossman in 2009[25], Matthew Plagman in 2012[26], and Dan Knoblauch in 1990.[27]

References[edit | edit source]

  6. 6.0 6.1
  7. 7.0 7.1
  14. 14.0 14.1