ICRA is the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society’s flagship conference and a premier international forum for robotics researchers to present their work. The 2015 conference is taking place 26-30 May, at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, Washington, USA.
I’m at Breakout Labs 3rd ‘unboxing’ today at the Terra Gallery in San Francisco. Founded by the Thiel Foundation in 2011, Breakout Labs provides seed stage funding of up to $350,000 to early stage companies who want to change the world. While the majority of the first startups are in biotech, there are one or two hardware companies. Breakout Labs portfolio manager Michelle Kim-Danely is on a mission to find more startups that are developing robots that can change the world.
The UK Robotics Mission landed in the USA this week. Backed by the Techonology Strategy Board and UK Trade & Investment, the tour covers more than 20 events in San Diego, Silicon Valley and San Francisco. A highlight of the first day’s events were tours of various UCSD robotics labs and a panel on ‘The Future of Robotics’ opened by the Rt. Hon. David Willetts, MP the UK Minister of State for Universities and Science, and also, Miroslave Krstic, the UCSD Associate Vice Chancellor for Research.
The Augmented World Expo (AWE) was on at Santa Clara Convention Center from May 27-29. The conference, organized by Ori Inbar and Tish Shute, has grown rapidly in recent years as augmented reality technologies come closer to mainstream adoption. As well as major companies like Bosch, Intel and Qualcomm, AWE had the latest gadgets and interfaces, a fair bit of fashion and some of interesting research in human machine interaction.
O’Reilly’s recent SOLID conference, May 21-22 at Fort Mason SF, was all about the intersection of hardware and software, but it also extended and challenged our ideas about what was hardware in a world of new and nano materials, and how software and code becomes tangible. And of course there were robots. Silicon Valley Robotics had an expo booth showcasing three of the top startups from our Robot Launch 2014 global startup competition for robotics, and I gave a short keynote “Are robots the new black?“.
There were robots everywhere, so trying to recap risks missing many. For starters, there was the SOLID hardware startup showcase (Modbots, Modular Science) as well as the Silicon Valley Robotics startup competition (Robotics Technologies of Tennessee, RoboTar and Tandemech Engineering). Plus exhibitors like Bot&Dolly, Otherlabs, Tempo Automation, Rethink Robotics, Boston Dynamics.
But a lot of the interesting stuff at SOLID is about the whole hardware process, how the internet is democratizing the supply chain and digital manufacturing in so many ways, which has network effects for robotics as all the various component and sensor technologies get cheaper and cheaper, with smaller batches that are more customizable. All of the keynotes are online and well worth watching but I found these ones particularly relevant for startups – or anyone who wants to understand why hardware is hard and where it has become easier.
“Hardware by the Numbers” was a presentation by Renee Di Resta, who is a principal at OATV, O’Reilly Alpha Tech Ventures. OATV is a seed stage investment firm with a portfolio that includes some very nice hardware and robotics companies like: 3D Robotics, Chumby, Misfit Wearables, Littlebits, and Planet Labs. Di Resta gives an overview of the ecosystem for hardware startups and the trends contributing to growth in certain directions. For example, the rise of hackerspaces means that being an inventor is a much less lonely life. And that in turn facilitates information sharing, which speeds up the entrepreneurship process.
Di Resta provides data on the manufacturing process, which show that more than 50% of US-based startups are choosing not to go to China. And that 37% of established companies with sales over $1 billion are also choosing to either ‘reshore’ to the US, or ‘nearshore’, as manufacturing in Mexico is called. One reason for this is the rise of wage costs in China. Another factor making reshoring plausible is ‘botsourcing’, the availability of industrial robots for manufacture. Germany, Japan and South Korea lead the way with between 27 and 39 robots per 100,000 workers, whereas China has only around 2 robots per 100,000 workers. And the US is in the middle with about 14 robots per 100,000 workers.
And if you like more data, Di Resta has figures on the overall funding levels for robotics and similar hardware categories. Plus Di Resta and Nick Pinkston have just released the definitive guide to building a hardware startup. If you wanted a deeper dive into the process of manufacturing for startups, Scott Miller from Dragon Innovation gave an excellent talk, and while it isn’t yet online, the slide deck for “How to prevent crowdfunding from destroying the hardware revolution” is. Since 2009, Dragon Innovation has helped more than 100 companies scale, eg; Pebble, Scout, Makerbot, Dash Robotics, Romotive, Leap, Thalmic Labs, Orbotix.
At iRobot, Miller was responsible for leading the Roomba technical team. He lived in China for four years as the VP of Asia Pacific, setting up teams in the Pearl River Delta and India and leading the production of 3 million Roomba units. Leaving iRobot after 10 years, Miller saw the difficulty that many entrepreneurs were facing in going from a functional prototype to high volume production. Miller teamed up with Herman Pang, previously of Hasbro, to start Dragon Innovation.
And if you ever wondered why Google bought Bot & Dolly in their recent robotics sweep, Tobias Kinnebrew explains how robotics tools and software need to be rewritten for artists – or indeed for anyone – to enable the broad spread of technology. At the moment robotics is governed by tools for experts, and this means we are yet to see the full innovation potential of robotics. Kinnebrew also makes the good point that combining artists and engineers is not a frictionless process, but that this friction is where the creative sparks are generated.
Didn’t get a robot entered in the DARPA grand robotics challenge (DRC)? Never mind, there are several robot design and business model competitions on at the moment, from social robots, to affordable robots, to open source humanoids. The International Conference on Social Robotics (ICSR) is running a design competition for robot companions. RoboSavvy is running a design competition for an open source humanoid robot and the African Robotics Network (AFRON) is running their second annual “$10 robot design” challenge. Deadlines are approaching so get designing!
SUSBEXPO is the first conference about unmanned systems to really focus on the growing commercial opportunities of this market. AUVSI put on a spectacular annual show, but it is predominantly military systems. SUSBEXPO is the brain child of Patrick Egan, who is a UAS business consultant, as well as being deeply involved in AUVSI, SUASNews, building on a background with the military and regulatory groups. The conference was held at the Golden Gate Club in San Francisco on July 25-26 and attracted attendees from all over the US and beyond. UAVs were on exhibit from companies like 3D Robotics, AgriFlight and MLB Drones, and Patrick Egan is expecting SUSBEXPO to be even larger next year.
Day One of AWE2013, the Augmented World Expo, finished with Sphero, the robot ball, taking out the first ‘Auggie Award’ for hardware. Sphero, by Orbotix, won the Auggie for their augmented reality game “Sharkey the Beaver”. They’ve also just released a new AR game with zombies “The Rolling Dead”. Using Sphero as a fireball-shooting warrior, you shoot fireballs at zombies spawning out of the ground. You can play anywhere, so the world becomes your video game.
Augmented reality and virtual reality have been overhyped and underdelivering for years but there are many indications that things are changing. It’s not just that Google Glass has been on the streets for a year now. Well, a select few have had Google Glass for a year already and the cut down consumer version is predicted for 2013/2014. There are also about 10 other versions on display here. I’m at the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara with 1000+ AR professionals from 30+ countries, seeing 100+ demos and hearing 110 speakers discuss what is happening for augmented humans in the augmented world.
It’s impossible to see everything at Maker Faire but I tried. I was exhibiting with my hackerspace Robot Garden and had the pleasure of being both a participant and a spectator. This was the 8th annual Maker Faire and it’s grown from 18,000 attendees to over 165,000, and that’s not counting hundreds of participants ranging from hobbyists and performers to startups to research groups, hackerspaces and supporting companies like Autodesk and TechShop. And yes, there were robots.
New accelerators are opening and existing programs are expanding. It’s an exciting time to be a robotics or hardware startup. In my next post I’ll talk about some of the sorts of startups that investors are showing interest in, but briefly, unless you are in the industrial space: Don’t call it a robot. Call it a connected device.
I’m setting up at Maker Faire with Robot Garden (a new robotics hackerspace and accelerator) and hope you’ll all come see Robot Garden @ iGate in Booth #2675 in Expo Hall. We might not be able to report back cause we’re giving presentations and having a booth and trying to look around ourselves but this is an event full of fantastic things. Not only are there some great new fab tools like ShopBot’s new Handibot and Otherfab’s new Othermill and Robot Garden’s own 3d plastic recycler OmNom, but there are robots everywhere!
It was another amazing Robot Block Party at the CARS facility in Stanford. More than 30 companies, startups, STEM groups and individuals demonstrated robots ranging from PR2s to tiny brain powered helicopters. The Block Party was sandwiched between the Robotics and Law conference, “We Robot: Getting down to business” at Stanford Law School and the equally impressive Xconomy forum “Robots Remake the Workplace” at SRI International. Many people who came for one event, stayed in the area a day or two longer for more.
Well, not quite. According to Rodney Brooks, robotics has too much Steve Wozniak and not enough Steve Jobs. And perhaps that’s where the jobs part of a very full afternoon forum should have ended. Xconomy’s forum “Robots Remake the Workplace” featured a stellar line up of robotics companies, startups and investors who covered a wide range of views about where robotics industries were going. Vivek Wadhwa, VP of Academics and Innovation at Singularity University and Wade Roush, Xconomy Chief Correspondent and moderator of the sessions, tried hard to represent the recent negative view of robotic’s impact on jobs and the economy. But in the end, it was clear that robots vs. jobs was a far less compelling discussion than diving deeper into what sort of robotics businesses are taking shape and what issues they face.