Industry Watch

A competition robot packing a MaxBotix sensor

A competition robot packing a MaxBotix sensor

MaxBotix sensing opportunities

Manufacturer’s sensors, originally made for robotics competitions, now used in variety of commercial settings

By Alex Harvison
Monday, January 19, 2015

About 12 years ago, Bob Gross of Brainerd, Minnesota, entered a robotics competition with his 11-year-old daughter. Much to their frustration, they kept having problems with their robot’s sensor — the closest thing it had to eyes. A sensor allows a robot to determine, for example, the distance and angle to a goal post. Competing well without one is next to impossible.

“I couldn’t help but think to myself, ‘I can make something much better than this,’ especially after looking around at other companies,” says Gross. “They were just way too expensive and of poor quality.”

MaxBotix Ultrasonic Rangefinders

Today Gross is CEO of Brainerd-based MaxBotix, which makes more than 180 sensors designed to tackle a range of tasks, from distance measurement to proximity sensing. The sensors are deployed not only in robots, but also in security systems and human interfacing devices. In a parking lot in Paris, they’re used to alert drivers to how many spaces are left. Above crops in the Midwest, they serve as the eyes of unmanned aerial vehicles (aka drones). In crosswalks, they warn pedestrians of oncoming cars.

Founded in 2004 by Gross and his wife, Nita, MaxBotix released its first product in December 2005. Still among the company’s most popular offerings, the LV-MaxSonar-EZ1 is billed as one of the industry’s first low-cost, high-quality ultrasonic sensors.

In the early days, MaxBotix sold its products mostly to hobbyists competing in robotics competitions. But in 2008, it introduced its first industrial sensor. And the following summer, it released 10 more sensors, with new features like automatic calibration, increased noise tolerance, and centimeter resolution.

As the company grew, it moved to new facilities four times and expanded existing facilities twice. And it continued to research and develop better sensors.

Despite the increasing number of industrial uses for its sensors, however, MaxBotix hasn’t forgotten its roots in competitions. “We love the education industry and being able to supply technology to young people looking to learn about robotics,” says Nita Gross. “What’s great about MaxBotix is that they give vouchers and offer discounts to the students competing so that they can save money and have the opportunity to gain experience using state-of-the-art tech,” says Mark Lawrence, regional planning chair for FIRST Robotics. “They’re really giving students a great opportunity to learn real-world programs and handle tech that prepares them for a future career in robotics.”

Last year, MaxBotix sensors were used in a FIRST Robotics match and at a Robotics Alley Expo competition. Participants in such contests learn about science and technology by designing and building their own robots. “The sensors are a really important part of the robot,” says Lawrence. “Sensors are kind of like the eyes of the robot. They’re used to detect where the walls, goal, and other bots in the arena are located and judge the range of them. Students will program the sensor to send feedback to a monitor for the person controlling the bot with a joystick.”

In the FIRST Robotics competition, he explains, student teams get six weeks to build a robot that can compete in a 30-by-60-foot arena. The robots must complete such tasks as shooting a ball or Frisbee into a goal, or using robotic arms to place an object like an inner tube around a peg that can be as high as 10 feet.

Kshitij Wavre, a junior, is programming captain for a team at Irondale High School in New Brighton. He used a MaxBotix sensor last year. “Its primary function was to use a straight-line laser to compute the distance of the goal,” he says. “Once the robot was in range, the sensor was programmed to shoot back data to the driving station and turn the dashboard green, indicating to the driver that it’s time to fire.”

Wavre describes the competition as being highly competitive but also very professional. “We’re given the opportunity to work with professional engineers and major companies and gain insights from them on building and programming the bot,” he says. “So even if you lose, it still feels like you gained something, and you can totally go over and shake the other team’s hand without there being any kind of hard feelings.”

MaxBotix can manufacture thousands of sensors a day and ship within one week of an order, unless the order exceeds 5,000 units, in which case it needs three weeks. The company has 85 distributors in 35 countries and currently employs 20 people.

Mary Scott, a senior accountant at MaxBotix, points to strategic thinking as one reason for the company’s success. The company leaders, she says, have “consciously planned for growth and are careful not to outgrow themselves. They keep all their resources in place and make sure that they never have to say, ‘Sorry, we can’t fulfill that order.’” 

Aiming to make a positive local impact, the Grosses say they have no intention of moving the company or outsourcing production. “We definitely like to employ from the Brainerd area, and internships are available over the summer for students who want to gain or further their experience,” says Nita Gross. “We welcome people looking to get into the robotics industry.”