Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Optimism: A conversation with Heartland Robotics' Rodney Brooks

He is a robotics entrepreneur and Founder, Chairman and CTO of Heartland Robotics, a stealthy start-up of robotic solutions for small and medium-sized factories. He is also a Founder, Board Member and former CTO (1991 - 2008) of iRobot Corp. He was the former Director (1997 - 2007) of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and then the MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).  A leader in the industry and a man I've long wanted to meet.

Yesterday morning Rodney Brooks and I had a conversation that covered many of the current issues in robotics. Throughout the conversation, he remained positive and upbeat, maintaining a viewpoint that the next few years will be the tipping point for this emerging industry, particularly here in America. Of course, that's part of his current job as entrepreneur/owner of Heartland Robotics.  As he said, "Entrepreneurs need to be optimistic." Nevertheless, it was a refreshing and informative conversation which I very much appreciated.

On the subject of manufacturing, Brooks cited the breadth of the American marketplace: that there are 300,000 small to medium-sized (less than 500 employees) non-auto-industry factories in America... almost none of which use robots, thus a very large marketplace.  He also said that the US is still the biggest manufacturing country in the world even though the trend is to move factories to where labor is plentiful and cheap (a moving offshore target). Also, that the US has the highest productivity rates -- mostly without robotic assistance.  Thus, to stay competitive and beat the trend to offshore sites those productivity rates will need to increase.  How better to do that than with robots?

We talked about the European SME Robotics project - an 8-year public-private effort to provide robotic solutions to keep EU manufacturing from going offshore. Certainly the project yielded needed constructs for safety, ease of use and trainability but no tangible disruptive product(s). Naturally Brooks hopes that his new company will be providing that disruptive product in the immediate future.

We talked about the efforts of many parties all over the world in the field of agriculture.  Companies, universities, P-PIP's and consortium's -- all searching to automate farming.  In the US, a good percentage of farmers are beginning to do what they call "precision farming," ie, using satellite, soil samples, production data, GPS, and other digitized data, to precisely know where and when to place seeds, fertilizers and chemicals to maximize crop production.  Wikipedia's definition of the process is:
Predicated on the concept of in-field variability, precision agriculture requires the use of new technologies, such as global positioning, sensorssatellites or aerial images, and information management tools (eg: GIS) to assess and understand in-field variations. Collected information may be used to more precisely evaluate optimum sowing density, estimate fertilizers and other inputs needs, and to more accurately predict crop yields. It seeks to avoid applying inflexible practices to a crop, regardless of local soil/climate conditions, and may help to better assess local situations of disease and low yields.
John Deere and Caterpillar already enable precision farming and also driverless operation of their tractors.  John Deere offers a whole range of GreenStar™precision products including an auto-steering setup.

Looking into the future, with an eye toward increasing productivity while reducing cost, one can imagine a present-day multi-purpose farm tractor -- big engine, bigger tires, an air conditioned, cushioned operator cabin, lots of gadgets and controls in the cabin, radically changing.  What would it look like if it were driverless?  The operator cabin is expensive and has a lot of devices that would no longer be necessary if the tractor were unmanned. [Why keep it?]  What would an unmanned farm vehicle (UFV) look like? How would it be redesigned? And how much less would it cost?

Slowly but surely John Deere and Caterpillar will be providing farmers with more extensive precision farming products and solutions including driverless tractors. Autonomous vehicles for precision farming by any other name is robotics.

Research and Funding:
Since the beginning of the Obama Administration, there's been nary a word about robotics.  All of a sudden things are beginning to happen. The Whitehouse Office of Science and Technology stated that “robotics is at a tipping point in terms of its usefulness and versatility” and is backing their belief with a fund to spur small business research. The recent Joint Agency SBIR funding announcement for robotics technology development and deployment is just one of many funding sources giving momentum to America's robotics industry.  Venture firms are returning and providing money.  So are DARPA, NASA, ARPA-E and the DoD.  A robotic solution to an existing, definable problem which reduces cost and hazards and increases productivity is very likely to get funded from multiple sources.

Also, Brooks sees movement toward a National Robotics Initiative working its way through Congress and getting into the budget and thereby providing additional funding for robotics research and development.

Looking at all this activity, all in the US, with solid US manufacturers like John Deere and Caterpillar, knowing more about his own companies and other ventures than he was willing to divulge to me, all this provides Brooks with a solid foundation for his optimism for continued robotics growth in America.  Definitely an uplifting conversation.