Capitol Hill event welcomes revised robotics roadmap

21 March 2013

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The Congressional Robotics Caucus welcomed the release Wednesday of a follow-up revision to the highly influential 2009 report, A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics: From Internet to Roboticswhich inspired the U.S. government’s first cohesive robotics research funding strategy in the $50 million National Robotics Initiative. The report outlines the progress of robots in multiple industries over the last five years, identifies goals for the coming decade and emphasizes the importance of the robotics research pipeline to maintaining U.S. innovation.

Georgia Tech's Dr. Henrik Christensen introduces the 2013 edition of the U.S. Robotics Roadmap.

Georgia Tech’s Dr. Henrik Christensen introduces the 2013 edition of the U.S. Robotics Roadmap.

Following opening remarks from caucus co-chair Congressman Phil Gingrey, editor Dr. Henrik I. Christensen of Georgia Institute of Technology briefed the audience on the report’s updates. With a clear emphasis placed on innovation and job creation, Christensen reported updates to the manufacturing, services, and healthcare sections while introducing two new sections for space and defense robotics, a clear signal to the rise of NASA successes Robonaut and Curiosity, and the growing significance of unmanned systems. To come up with these updates, the National Science Foundation supported five topical workshops last year hosting approximately 25 participants from academia, industry, and government at each event. Lacking from the last report was a particular focus on human-robot teams, whereas this revised version stresses the importance of co-worker (manufacturing/service), co-inhabitant (healthcare), co-defender (defense/security), and co-explorer (space) applications.

Building on the release of its highly publicized Baxter manufacturing robot, Rethink Robotics‘ founder and CEO Dr. Rodney Brooks energized the room with his discussion of the growing “in-shoring” movement where robots are having a significant impact on reducing manufacturing costs in the U.S. when compared to Asian markets. He noted Baxter’s ease of use, as evidenced by its integration and useful output at a plastics factory outside of Philadelphia just one day after taking delivery.

Following the much-hyped acquisition by Amazon for a whopping $775 million last year, Kiva Systems CTO Dr. Pete Wurman highlighted the continued double-digit growth in e-commerce, as its swarm of logistics robots help workers save time where they would typically “walk miles in a factory” to retrieve inventory. Today, Kiva robots help operate distribution centers across the U.S. for companies like Staples (their first customer), Crate & Barrel, and Walgreens, and they’re just beginning to expand into Europe. Wurman noted that a typical installation can feature 500 robots, with their largest boasting 1,000: “too many to fit into a photo,” he said.

Ekso Bionics' Russ Angold (right) looks on as a paralyzed Army veteran uses the exoskeleton to walk again.

Ekso Bionics’ Russ Angold (right) looks on as a paralyzed Army veteran uses the exoskeleton to walk again.

Finally, the briefing closed with a memorable presentation from exoskeleton pioneers Ekso Bionics. Company co-founder and CTO Russ Angold reported that in the past year their exoskeleton system has helped over 500 individuals take 1.8 million steps during rehabilitation sessions following partial and complete spinal paralysis. In a rare live robot demonstration in a Congressional office building, a 30-year Army veteran paralyzed in a helicopter crash in Iraq, used the Ekso system to stand and then walk to the center of the room. It was a remarkable concluding statement for the dozens of staffers, professional society representatives, government officials and robotics engineers in attendance.

A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics: From Internet to Robotics–2013 edition can be viewed here.

David Pietrocola is a robotics engineer and CEO of Lifebotics LLC. He writes regularly on robotics policy, news, and events.
David Pietrocola is a robotics engineer and CEO of Lifebotics LLC. He writes regularly on robotics policy, news, and events.

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