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In Our Own Way
By Robotics Trends Staff - Filed Aug 02, 2006
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If you interact with the larger robotics community for a long enough period of time, you cannot help but hear a number of statistics, stories and ‘truisms’ that are passed around year after year at business meetings, robotics conferences and over morning coffee. I have found that a number of robotics truisms are not true at all, or at least much of the total story is left out. Certain ‘facts’ only become facts with a capitol ‘F’ with repetition.

A good example of such facts is the commonly held belief that the US lost out to Asia, primarily Japan, on the industrial robotics market because unions were unwilling to let robots into US shops for fear of job loss. While job loss was a concern, it was not the only issue and perhaps not the primary one. Questions relating to capitol expenditures on unproven technology (in a recessive period), and the rate and amount of investment return, also came into play. Japanese corporate culture is supportive of long term investment goals with relatively modest returns on investment. Their US counterparts favor a quicker turn on the buck and a better rate of return. At the time, industrial robotics promised neither of these.

Another one of the robotics truisms is that the US lags Japan, and possibly even Korea in the robotics field. Not quite. The talking points that drive this line of reasoning are typically some combination and permutation of the following:

- Japan and Korea Dominate
- The US Lacks a National Robotics Policy
- There is a Lack of Interest in Technical Studies in the US
- The ‘New’ Robotics Market is Not ‘Real’
- The US Does Not Have a Culture of Robotics

humanoid robotJapan and Korea Dominate
One of the most popular robotics truisms is that the US lags Japan, and possibly even Korea, in the robotics field. Not quite. The counter argument can be summarized in two words… military robotics. The US is the leader by far in the research, development and commercialization of military robotics. Over time the amount of defense related funding for military robotics initiatives will run into the billions of dollars. More importantly, the spending surge currently underway for DoD funded robotics research and development is going to pay off in spades for all manner of non-military applications (see Table 1). Commercial field robotics and autonomous transportation are the most obviously beneficiaries, but you can bet that there will be all manner of commercial robotics products that will have benefited directly from DoD flavored research and development initiatives.

Lack of National Robotics Policy
This is largely true for a formal national policy, especially compared to government backed robotics business development initiatives in Korea and Japan. While government support for the robotics industry in Japan is well known, it is important to note that the Koreans are equally dedicated and are backing up their beliefs with cash. For example, the Korean government will spend 316.5 billion won (US $264 million) over the next five years on 16 projects to boost the domestic intelligent robotics industry. A task force of businesses and research groups are seeking ways to link the robotics industry with potential growth industries such as display equipment, next-generation chips and networked homes, with the stated goal of making Korea one of the world’s top three nations in the robotics industry by 2013 (15 percent of the market).

A number of US governmental bodies do serve as funding instruments for robotics research including the National Science Foundation (declining), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (its own activities and small grants to universities), the Department of Energy (nuclear power and hazardous waste), the Department of Health and Human Services (assistive technology, prosthetics), the Department of the Interior (mining, field robotics, underwater robots) and NASA (space exploration and satellite servicing). For many of these groups, however, support for robotics research is flat or declining.

Corporate funding for robotics research is very thin at this time. Some funding for core robotics research is being funneled through universities, but there is little direct investment in robotics research at the corporate level for the development of commercial products. This lack of internal funding for robotics research has been attributed, correctly I believe, to US firm’s emphasis on a quick return on investment and an ROI of at least 15%.

What the US lacks in a formal robotics policy, it makes up for with informal efforts beginning with DoD funding of robotics projects. Consider the following:

- For FY 2004-2009, the Army is allocating $500 million to unmanned ground platforms;

- DARPA is bankrolling over 40 robot-related projects at universities and private firms;

- The Defense Department is expected to spend up to $10B on unmanned aerial vehicles by the end of the decade; and

- The Navy is spending $50M develop four prototypes of a surface platform geared for operation in littoral areas and $130M on remote mine hunting systems.

The list could go on and on in terms of the billions of dollars of military funding dedicated to robotics development, to say nothing of homeland security.

Another example of informal US robotics initiatives is the development of three robotics clusters within the US. The New England cluster is anchored by its university system including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University and so on, and is fueled by East Coast venture capitalists in New York and Boston. iRobot, Deka Research, MobileRobots, Foster Miller and others provide corporate stewardship, as does the Massachusetts Robotics Cluster, a robotics business development group run out of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council.

A second robotics cluster, based in Pittsburgh, revolves around Carnegie Mellon University and includes the National Center for Defense Robotics, the National Robotics Engineering Center, the Technology Collaborative (a business development group) and many local robotics firms. San Francisco/Silicon Valley is also a player, but not the dominant one. The Valley is home to Stamford, University of Santa Clara, San Jose Sate, UC Berkley and a host of other educational powerhouses, as well as many small entrepreneurial robotics firms and traditional computer companies (who are keeping a watchful eye on this new technology sector). West Coast venture capitalist firms (San Francisco, Silicon Valley) are also keenly interested in robotics following the iRobot initial public offering.

Lack of Interest in Technical Studies
It is true that the number of US college students majoring in computer science is declining. This, however, is largely a function of computers having completely mainstreamed since the late 1970s and thereby losing much of their ‘attractiveness of the new’. Let’s face it, in the 80s and 90s Information Technology (IT), followed by everything ‘Web’, was hot. For today’s high school and college students, however, IT is now the equivalent of accounting… it provides a decent living, but is hardly exciting. The Web continues to spin off new and interesting business models and new versions of the Internet will offer even greater opportunities, and will attract the interest of many prospective engineers. So too with game design and mobile computing, but in general the blush is off the rose in terms of the emotional appeal of computer science as a subject for study, and the drop in interest in IT flavored computer science courses reflects this.

A lack of interest in technical studies is not what ails US students, just a lack of interesting technical subjects. Enter robotics. Robotics has displaced computer science as the academia’s technological glamour queen. Robotics in the US is hot judging by the number of robotics courses being added to grade school, high school and university curricula. Toss in the robotics technical camps offered during school holidays and what you have is a swelling of interest in a decidedly technical subject and one that incorporates not only computer science, but mechanical and electrical engineering as well.

The ‘New’ Robotics Market is Not ‘Real’
Of course the US lags Asia in the mobile robotics market. The market is not real, at least not yet – no successes, no business model and no killer application. At least that how the story goes. It would seem that the iRobot IPO would have retired this particular truism, but according to robotics naysayers a single IPO does not a revolution make. True, but if you also toss in the massive military robotics market, the commercial Unmanned Aerial/Ground/Underwater Vehicles market, the increasing interest in robotics from toy manufactures such as Hasbro and Mattel (following the success of Wow Wee Robotics and the UGOBE Pleo announcement), and other initiatives, you can see a groundswell building.

To date the VCs have been tightfisted with investment dollars for robotics companies and investment and investment dollars is a sure measure of market reality. It is equally true, however, that you cannot walk across a room at business oriented robotics conferences without bumping into a venture capitalist.

I do think that the mobile robotics industry is still looking for its’ ‘killer app’, and I fervently believe that more than one will be uncovered. Time and technological advancement make it so. Whether that application is something completely new (the Internet) or a better turn on an existing practice (spreadsheets for ledger books or EMail for snail mail) has yet to be determined.

The US Does Not Have a Culture of Robotics
This old chestnut is so patently wrong that a rebuttal would hardly seem necessary. In terms of popular culture we have R2D2, C3PO, Disney World and the Terminator (played by the now governor of California). We have already touched on the military robotics, the IRobot IPO, new products form US companies entering the market, the addition of robotics to education curricula at all grade levels and on and on.

For a country without a culture of robotics competitions and events seem to be extremely popular (FIRST, BotBall, RoboOlympics to name but a few). Other robotics events such as the Tetsujin robotics weightlifting contest or robotic gladiatorial combat where 300 pound behemoths go head-to-head, are almost exclusive to the US. We can leave out the argument on whether such remote control robotic warriors are robots at all (they are), or whether they are good for the industry (again, yes), the fact remains that they are rousing good fun and for that reason they draw people by the thousands.

The fact is that the mobile robotics industry is alive and well in the United States. The market is very different from that in Asia and in Europe to be sure, but the overall market is large enough to support any number of national, commercial and personal approaches for engaging in it.

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