Saturday, July 30, 2011

Recent Breakthroughs Are Enabling Consumer and Low-cost Commercial Robots

by Frank Tobe and Manoj Sahi
The consumer robotic market has been on a roller coaster ride of evolution and market penetration. The amount of money companies and consumers were paying for robots and the features that they were getting ultimately did not match up. Low-cost service robots have similar problems. The technologies and robot components being used were highly expensive and had to be downgraded to make the cost acceptable. Thanks to a few breakthroughs that are happening in the domains of sensing, electric actuation, communication, open source software and Internet, consumer robotics is on the threshold of entering a new phase of affordable robots.

Kinect 3D for Xbox

The radical game changing sensor, Microsoft's Kinect 3D for Xbox 360, available at a mere $150, is a dirt-cheap way to bring depth sensing and 3D vision to robots. It is a motion sensing input device and works by projecting an infrared laser pattern onto nearby objects and, through some amazing software, provides full-body 3D motion capture, facial recognition and voice recognition capabilities. These are awesome abilities to incorporate into a robot, and Windows SDK from Microsoft promises to make it even easier. Within weeks of the device’s release, YouTube was filled with videos of Kinect-enabled robots. The device has shown compelling potential for use in live 3-dimensional videoconferencing and telepresence applications. Kinect may not be good enough for highly complex robotic systems for industries, defense, etc. but for sure it is a breakthrough technology for consumer robotics – enabling low-cost vision functionality - which will lead to many more breakthroughs and applications.

Series Elastic Actuators

For the last 30 years, industrial robots have been used in manufacturing processes but these are too dangerous, too rigid and too unpredictable to work alongside humans just like a team member. They need to understand human presence and touch. The series elastic actuator is going to help make that possible. Series Elastic Actuators were invented at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab. According to Rodney Brooks, co-founder of iRobot and founder of Heartland Robotics, "The use of series elastic actuators changes the whole approach to manufacturing robots. It makes the robot able to safely interact with people."

So what is so special about series elastic actuators? They incorporate an instrumented elastic spring component between the motor and the object or load. Although this is a small change, it makes a huge difference to the entire equation. It improves the quality of the actuator package while reducing its cost. The robot is more efficient and has better force control stability. Nature is the best place to find examples of such actuation. Animals commonly utilize the elasticity of tendons to store energy in one part of a locomotive cycle and release it in another, with the muscle doing much less work overall than would otherwise be required. A number of robots have been built incorporating series-elastic actuators, NASA’s Robonaut 2 and Heartland Robotics’ as-yet unnamed workplace assistant are examples. In consumer robotics, a robot cannot work in isolation from human beings and other life forms yet it must not hurt them while interacting. These actuators – and their low cost - have got that potential and are making it possible.

Telepresence and Service Robots

Highly accelerated growth in communication technology is enabling telepresence robots to reach consumers in a lesser time than predicted by market pundits. The internet, wireless communications and display interfaces are becoming faster, reliable and economical. Utilizing these developments, telepresence robots have started sharing floor space with humans in offices and hospitals. With the entrance of big players like iRobot and emergence of companies like VGo, Luna and BiliBot, the party seems to have just started.

Big Companies, Through Strategic Partnerships, Stimulus and Investment, Are Joining The Party

Industrial and special purpose robotic manufacturers are beginning to enter the service robotics marketplace. iRobot and Adept, two large American robot manufacturers, are good examples. Adept recently acquired Mobile Robot to add mobility to its products and establish a lower costing service robots line of products. iRobot has a high-end range of products which it sells to defense and security organizations worldwide along with its range of consumer products (Roomba, Scooba, etc.). What it doesn’t presently have is a mid-range set of products.

iRobot started a new healthcare division earlier this year and recently announced a partnership with InTouch Health. InTouch Health already has produced and sold their mobile robotic telepresence solution to over 400 hospitals. InTouch Health’s hospital clients can contact doctors or other specialists based hundreds or thousands of miles away, and give medical professionals unlimited reach through their system of robotics and communication devices. This new partnership between iRobot and InTouch Health will help to explore more potential opportunities. The AVA mobile platform from iRobot is a much lower-cost and technically sound robot which is likely going to enable InTouch to lower their cost and selling price thereby bringing their products to a wider marketplace, perhaps even branching out into other areas of business where telepresence communications are a necessary solution. According to Moji Ghodoussi, a VP at InTouch Health, "It is indeed a great partnership and we are very excited and looking forward to great things." It is a win-win for both companies and is surely going to add more value to telepresence while bringing down robot cost considerably and adding a user-desirable front-end device (tablet). Soon we will find telepresence robots far more effective than making phone calls or sending e-mails.

App Stores, Open Source Software and Repositories

The App Store concept pioneered by Apple, which is changing the face of many industries, has already started showing its colors in robotic applications. Thousands of videos can be found about controlling robotic devices using iphones and Android based tablets. Initiatives like RoboEarth, an EU-sponsored project, are beginning to provide a giant network and database repository where robots can share information and learn from each other about their behavior and environment. This will enable a better way of robot collaboration and information sharing. It was not a surprising move when Google and Willow Garage announced cloud robotics during Google I/O 2011. The first pure-Java implementation of Willow Garage’s ROS was released. This new library was developed at Google with the goal of enabling advanced Android apps for robotics. The library, tools, and hardware that come with Android devices are well-suited for robotics. Smart phones and tablets are sophisticated computation devices with useful sensors and great user-interaction capabilities. Android devices can also be extended with additional sensors and actuators thanks to the Open Accessory and Android@Home APIs. iRobot has partnered with Google to have Android apps run on its iRobot AVA mobile robotics platform and is open to a similar arrangement with Apple and it’s iOS for iPads and iPhones. At present Willow Garage is also leading the open source library development of The Point Cloud Library (or PCL). The PCL is a large scale, open project for point cloud processing containing numerous state-of-the art intelligent algorithms. This project is funded by Willow Garage, NVidia, Google, and Toyota.

Contests, Prizes and Hackathons

Consumer robotics current group of skills are brittle and some fail if a small change is introduced in their constrained environment. Many believe that the bottom up approach of training the robot in one task at a time and building libraries of tasks will help them to be more versatile and effective. Others feel that a breakthrough is needed in Artificial Intelligence for a flexible perception. Events like ‘hackathons’ and other contests and prizes are helping to realize this much needed breakthrough in flexible perception. All of these activities, partnerships, collaborations, and product announcements are the tip of the iceberg as robotics break into the $5,000 to $15,000 price point – a place where businesses can afford to experiment with these new tech devices.

All these breakthroughs are pointing towards a better and bigger service robotics market in two to three years. The key will be to make them practical, affordable and acceptable by humans as a part of their lives. The way big companies are utilizing their profits, investing, and showing their interests is highly encouraging as is the recent spate of manufacturing-focused government stimulus programs in America, Korea and the EU.

[Frank Tobe is the owner/publisher of The Robot Report and this blog (Everything-Robotic). 
Manoj Sahi is a young entrepreneur from India, co-founder of a robotic start-up company and a graduate Mechatronics engineer.]

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Robot Industry Stock Information Lacking

In early 2008 I asked my Merrill Lynch broker for a list of stocks of American robot manufacturers. He couldn't provide me with more than two. So I went online with Bloomberg and found a list of 120 companies involved with automation. When I researched them, there were only a few in the U.S. and fewer still where robotics was the principle business.

Today, in the article which appeared under the NASDAQ banner shown above, it is clear that things haven't improved since 2008. The list is full of errors, omissions and was selected by market cap -- yet most of the companies are conglomerates with only a small portion of their sales from robotics, thus market cap is meaningless as regarding robotics. As a consequence, not much of the information is of value even though the topic is relevant.

Their list of 10 robot stocks included ABB, Sony, Panasonic, Phillips, Raytheon, Aetna, Dover, Moog, Elbit and iRobot.
  • Only four of the ten are U.S. companies.
    • iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT) derives 100% of its revenue from robotic products, mostly military (PackBots), but also consumer-related (Roomba vacuum cleaners).
    • Raytheon (NYSE:RTN), an aerospace/defense company, has many kinds of robotic products: drones, exoskeletons, vision systems, etc. Still, robotics represents only a very small portion of their overall revenue.
    • Moog (NYSE:MOG.A), another aerospace/defense contractor and systems integrator, derives some revenue from the manufacture of sensors, haptics, unmanned aerial systems and ancillary products.
    • Dover Corp (NYSE:DOV), a machine manufacturer, gets just a small amount of their revenue from robotic grippers and components.
  • Aetna, the American health care company listed, doesn't have any robotic activity whatsoever. The researcher confused Aetna with Aetna Group SpA, a privately-owned Italian robotics manufacturer. [I wrote to the analyst about this error and he replied that he is going to correct it asap.]
  • ABB (NYSE:ABB ADR) is a Swiss conglomerate; robotics represents only 18% of total revenue.
  • Honda (NYSE:HNC ADR), a Japanese auto company, presently has no robotic products for sale, although it is a big user and has many under development, the most prominent of which is Asimo.
  • Panasonic (NYSE: PC ADR), also Japanese, is a multi-product company with robotics representing a small percent of the total.
  • Koninklijke Philips Electronics (NYSE:PHG ADR), from the Netherlands, has few robotic products which represent only a minimal percentage of their revenue.
  • Elbit (NASDAQ:ESLT ADR), an Israeli defense contractor, is actively involved in unmanned aircraft, surveillance and other robotic systems - nevertheless robotics represent less than 20% of gross revenue.
  • Missing from the list were the world's biggest robot manufacturers: KUKA (ETR:KU2 London Stock Exchange) and Reis (privately held) (Germany), and Denso (TYO:6902 Tokyo Stock Exchange)), Yaskawa Motoman (TYO:6506) and FANUC (TYO:6954) (Japan).
Globally, there are slightly more than 250 publicly-traded robot manufacturers.  In the U.S. and Canada, the list is small but quite interesting.  Here are 16 - in addition to the 4 shown above - to whet your appetite:
  • Healthcare:
    • Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG) and its da Vinci Robotic Surgical System are being installed at major hospital operating centers worldwide. Its stock is up over $100 so far this year!
    • Mako Surgical (NASDAQ:MAKO) has a robotic arm interactive orthopedic system for knee implants.
    • Accuray (NASDAQ:ARAY) and its CyberKnife Robotic Radiosurgery System is an up-and-coming robotic radiation treatment methodology.
  • Defense/security:
    • AeroVironment (NASDAQ:AVAV) is a provider of unmanned aircraft, systems and services.
    • Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC), Rockwell Automation (NYSE:ROK), General Dynamics (NYSE:GD), Boeing (NYSE:BA), Teledyne (NYSE:TDY) and Textron (NYSE:TXT) in the US and Macdonald Dettwiler (TSE:MDA Toronto Stock Exchange) in Canada are all involved in robotics to some extent - but only a portion of their revenue is derived therefrom.
  • General robotics:
    • Adept Technology (NASDAQ:ADEP) gets 100% of its revenue from robotics in manufacturing, food processing, automotive and warehousing applications.
    • Many American publicly-traded engineering and consulting firms provide robot integration with value-added customization and services.
  • Ancillary businesses to the robotics industry:
    • Trimble (NASDAQ:TRMB) provides advanced positioning product solutions and component parts as does Hemisphere GPS (TSE:HEM Toronto Stock Exchange) in Canada, particularly for the ag industry.
    • FARO Technologies (NASDAQ:FARO) provides 3D measurement and inspection arms and scanners.
    • Cognex (NASDAQ:CGNX) is a provider of machine vision products.
Since my experiences in 2008, and because of a personal belief that the robotics industry is the place to invest for the future, I have carefully compiled a proprietary list of global publicly-traded stocks reflecting all aspects of the robotics industry. I monitor and report upon these stocks monthly in a performance/comparison chart, the Global Robo-Stox™ Comparison to the NASDAQ Index, the latest version of which can be seen and reviewed on The Robot Report website. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Driverless cars Demonstrated in Sweden

Test Vehicles Demonstrated at HAVEit's Final Event, June 21-22, 2011
Last month in BorĂ¥s, Sweden, the European Union's HAVEit (Highly Automated Vehicles for Intelligent Transport) consortium, celebrated the final event of their multi-year research project by displaying driverless cars and trucks. HAVEit was set up to develop and demonstrate future driving possibilities.

Volvo demonstrated Road Trains. Platooning is the buzzword for moving trains of vehicles to reduce congestion and improve fuel economy - which Volvo expects to be on European roads by 2020. "This is easier than what Google is trying to do," said Erik Coelingh, a technical specialist at Volvo, to Fast Company. "What we are trying to do is take a step in the middle between the adaptive cruise control cars that we have today and the Google car that we will have in the future."

Volvo's trucking group demonstrated Automated Queue Assistance (AQuA) which relieves truck drivers of the monotonous task of driving in traffic queues. When the system is activated the driver can lean back, relax and monitor the system’s performance while AQuA controls the vehicle. “Those traffic queues are not only environmentally unfriendly but also a challenging task for drivers as many traffic accidents can occur in these monotonous circumstances as the driver’s alertness gets reduced," says Achim Beutner, Volvo Technology specialist. DARPA and the U.S. Department of Defense are attempting their own version of platooning in the near future.

Volkswagen demoed it's Temporary Auto Pilot (TAP) so you can take your hands off the wheel while cruising down the highway. The system pairs Lane Assist with cruise control, and can be overridden by the driver at any time. The TAP system's Pilot Mode uses radar, laser, camera, and ultrasonic sensors to maintain a safe distance between vehicles, start and stop in traffic, and slow down before a bend.

Just last fall, Google announced that its engineers were working on software for self-driving cars. Google's self-driving cars logged 140,000 miles in California, driving -- with a trained driver and software engineer on board -- around Lake Tahoe, across the Golden Gate Bridge and along the Pacific Coast Highway.

In support of all these developments, Nevada passed a new law enabling driverless cars in that state and issued a mandate to their Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles to create the licensing and regulations required to administer the new law.

The goals for all these activities are similar: to increase traffic safety and reduce fuel consumption while optimizing safe automation. As a long-time user of adaptive cruise control, I've been a fan of this kind of embedded system into the car's navigation, safety and entertainment system and watched with fascination as these types of systems have won approval and become mainstream.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

An Inspiring Conversation with Amir Abo-Shaeer

Amir Abo-Shaeer is a high school physics teacher in Santa Barbara, California.  But he is not just any physics teacher.  He is the founder and Director of the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, is the 2010 recipient of a $500,000 MacArthur Fellow award, and is the lead character in the book The New Cool by Neal Bascomb which tells the story of his high school's winning entry in the 2008 F.I.R.S.T. robotics competition.

Amir and I spoke recently about robotics, his program and his views about teaching, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), the importance of making things, and American kids.

When I asked him what he thought about President Obama's recently announced AMP program - $70 million of which is for robotics - I was a bit surprised when he said he wasn't up on this. He explained to me that his focus has always been on education; not on developing robotics. He described how robotics has offered the ideal means by which to teach his students physics and engineering, and the FIRST program has given them the opportunity to utilizes skill sets that they can handle. Amir stated that inspiring kids to make things - to create things - was his number one priority.

In fact, Abo-Shaeer has incorporated the FIRST robotics competition directly into his 4-year curriculum. The entire senior class makes up the school's team and the class project is to create, build and compete. Amir said that he chose the FIRST program because it already exists, it has a successful track record, and it is exciting to the kids.

When I asked Amir whether he had read Suzanne Berger's essay on why manufacturing matters, he said that he hadn't but that he agreed with her position. He verbalized his concern that if Americans continue toward a service economy, there doesn't appear to be anything figured out - any national strategy or retraining program - for that portion of the middle class displaced by the loss of their jobs to offshore manufacturers. He also said:
I personally think it's a national security issue that we're not producing what we use. Every country should be capable of reasonably supporting itself. Yet we are leading the charge for one country (China) to make everything by our offshoring all of our products.

China could have something go wrong; not evil or with malice; just something that would cut off our products. It's important that we not be held hostage to that kind of disruption.

If you get people excited, they can figure out our problems and create businesses along the way... like harnessing the sun's energy. We need more creative people in science and engineering working on this.

Science, engineering and technological advancements are what made us embrace science in the past; we can do it in the future by getting our kids into the pipeline, properly trained and motivated.
Goodtime Clock IV, by George Rhoads, Santa Barbara Airport
Part of Abo-Shaeer's 4-year program is teaching art and creativity. In the 9th through 11th grades, the focus is art, engineering and architecture; the 12th grade is for robotics.
Kinetic sculpture (like the one by George Rhodes at the Santa Barbara Airport) is fun and exciting - to figure out how it works; to make their own version.

My personal mission is to broaden awareness of creation as a way of life: art, engineering... to make something; to create something.

The junior class will build kinetic sculptures which will be offered for public spaces in the Santa Barbara area. These are the kinds of projects I'm searching for - stand-alone things like that; robots are just a prop along the way of trying to teach the kids how to do everything - using their hands.
Another part of Amir's program is partnering with local businesses which can provide mentors, financial support and internships for the students. Raytheon, a national company with two divisions in Santa Barbara, is a good example of how this works.
Since we've begun the program we've gone full circle with Raytheon. They've provided mentors, financial support and internships to our kids. And now that the first few have graduated college and returned to Santa Barbara, Raytheon has hired some of them. That's how it works.
Abo-Shaeer has a plan to grow his program throughout California. He's creating a curriculum and bringing in teachers and helping them grow their own programs.
We are successful. You hear all the time that our kids don't want to do science. But they do. We aren't really marketing our program and they are still turning out in good numbers. With our new building we can now accept three times our original number of students. They want to do it and are excited about it. We're letting 100 of them in each cycle. Our attrition rate is zero! We're demonstrating that kids love this kind of stuff - and 50% of our students are girls!

I've had students that couldn't cut paper with a scissors. But when they leave the program they can build anything with confidence!
Abo-Shaeer is an energetic speaker and seems to be a natural at getting people excited. Although he's not that into the business of robotics, he's interested in whatever it takes to keep kids' attention. He wants everyone to understand and embrace his message: American kids can be interested in science, technology, engineering and math. They can make things with their hands. They can find excitement in STEM in that context. And their combined creative energy can solve problems.

[As an aside: Amir reminds me of the reason I chose to learn glass blowing many years ago. John Burton, coincidentally he was from Santa Barbara too, won an Emmy award for his philosophizing while glass blowing - talking about the same things that Abo-Shaeer talked about with me: the value of making things with your hands, the creativity unleashed, and the joy of learning and accomplishment. I wrote and asked whether he gave private lessons and when he said yes, drove 90 miles each Friday for many years - enjoying my time with him, learning new skills, making lots of different things, and seeing my skills expand. I forgot to ask Amir who inspired him....]

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Robots at the Tepco Nuclear Facility in Fukushima, Japan

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Facility - Before Twin Disasters
How did it come to be that Japan's nuclear power authority didn't have any emergency robots ready to assist with damage and control? Why were they caught unprepared?
In the days after a giant tsunami knocked out Fukushima Daiichi’s cooling system, the prime minister’s office and the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, the plant’s operator, wrestled over whether to inject cooling seawater into the reactor buildings to prevent catastrophic meltdowns, and then over how to do it.

With radiation levels too high for workers to approach the reactors, the Japanese authorities floundered. They sent police trucks mounted with water cannons — equipment designed to disperse rioters — to spray water into the reactor buildings. Military helicopters flew over the buildings, dropping water that was scattered off course by strong winds, in a “performance, a kind of circus” that was aimed more at reassuring an increasingly alarmed Japanese population and American government, said Kenichi Matsumoto, an aide to Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

What became clear was that Japan lacked some of the basic hardware to respond to a nuclear crisis and, after initial resistance, had to look abroad for help. For a country proud of its technology, the low point occurred on March 31 when it had to use a 203-foot-long water pump — shipped from China, an export market for Japanese nuclear technology — to inject 90 tons of fresh water into the No. 1 reactor building. But perhaps more than anything else, the absence of one particular technology was deeply puzzling: emergency robots.

“The plant operators said that robots were not needed,” said Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, 77, an engineer and a former president of the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious academic institution. “Instead, introducing them would inspire fear, they said. That’s why they said that robots couldn’t be introduced.” [NY Times]
There are significant cultural differences between Japan and Western countries, some hundreds of years old and others more recent.
The "robot journey" in Japan has been the discovery of fantastic entertainers, tools, and, ultimately, friends in robots. Because of this rich tradition, Japanese are especially able to see robots as something more than mere tools, buckets of bolts, or steel and silicon. They can welcome them as partners in everyday life with surprising ease. [Tim Hornyak, from his book Loving the Machine]
In the present situation two powerful themes are influencing decisions on a daily basis: a belief in the safety of nuclear power developed from 50 years of PR, and Japan's seniority system.
“In Japan, we have something called the ‘safety myth,’” Banri Kaieda, who runs the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees the nuclear industry, said. “It’s a fact that there was an unreasonable overconfidence in the technology of Japan’s nuclear power generation.”

As a result, he said, the nuclear industry’s “thinking about safety had a poor foundation.”

Japan’s government has concentrated its propaganda and educational efforts on creating such national beliefs in the past, most notably during World War II. The push for nuclear power underpinned postwar Japan’s focus on economic growth and its dream of greater energy independence.  [NY Times]
Japan's seniority system often gets in the way of productivity and efficiency. Teachers complain that principals and administrators, having been rewarded their positions based on seniority rather than merit, are often ceremonial leaving the real work for teachers to pick up.

RC Bobcat and Talon from QinetiQ and Packbot by iRobot
In the case of Fukushima, both iRobot and QinetiQ, companies that volunteered equipment to Tepco, instructors found that senior Tepco employees were chosen to be trained to operate the American and British robots yet they were less suited to the task than the 20-year olds who had gamer experience. The remote-controlled PackBot and Talon robots and the RC Bobcat tractors, all used gaming consoles to operate their devices and the senior employees were slow to learn. In a recent Webinar on the issue by Robotic Trends, the trainers found that 20-year olds learned in less than a day while it took the older Tepco employees many days to gain the same level of competence.

Tepco is still involved in the containment process and will be for many months. Simultaneous to their activities, and in addition to Japanese investigations, the international nuclear community is evaluating what went wrong and how it might have been handled better for future nuclear power plant "incidents."

International, as well as Japanese, standards broke down. France, with 58 plants in operation, has a robotic emergency response capability yet Japan, with 54, does not.
The Group of Robotics INTervention on Accidents (INTRA), maintains a fleet of robotics machines capable of intervening, in the place of man, in a major nuclear accident, in and around the industrial buildings of its members. It also assures the continuous training of robot pilots within the installations of company members. [Group INTRA website]
The US, with 104 nuclear reactors, doesn't have a robotic response group (like the French one). Each utility has it's own set of procedures and guidelines monitored by the AEC. But the industry does have public relations websites emphasizing the safety of American nuclear power plants.  One site, run by the Nuclear Energy  Institute, uses keywords safe, secure, reliable and responsible with only cursory descriptors of actions and plans that make our reactors safe or secure or reliable or responsible.

Hence the question: does America have it's own 'safety myth' in relation to nuclear power?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

If machines can't eat it, machines shouldn't make it!

So says the ad for Carl's Jr. (promoting their chicken patty sandwich).

The robot in Carl’s Jr’s new ad is one of many ads and films which attempt to portray robots as symbols for the evil, giant, alien machines that apply crumbs and other not-nice stuff to chicken patties, hot dogs, tortillas and other food, beverage and candy items before they’re packaged and shipped.

Along the same theme, Stephen Colbert did a schtick about Robo-Slackers—“the #1 threat to America” -- saying:
They 've already taken away our factory jobs; now they're after our stoner, burnout jobs!
Skip forward to 3:26 to see the bit.

Nevertheless, and humor aside, robots ARE involved in food processing and packaging and it's beneficial to almost everyone. Food quality, safety, labor costs, sanitation, product waste, and productivity (often in uncomfortably cold work areas) are the drivers. KUKA, ABB, FANUC, Adept and a fleet of integrators are the providers. Working together, they are enabling large food and beverage processors to better handle their hot dogs, baked goods, meat and poultry products and candy. It’s one of the rising areas of robotics, partly because the robots are much faster than humans doing the same task. In fact the robot manufacturers are pushing the technology as a means of eliminating the need for human contact with food products since workers are a major source of contamination in food factories.

Almost every aspect of food processing is a prospective area for robotics integration. Sorting and packaging lettuce in Spain; milking cows; in cheese production they stir curds, transfer cheese moulds, and turn, cut, portion, package and palletize; selecting, stacking and packaging sausages or hot dogs or candy; etc. In use in the EU and Japan, and seeking approval in the US, Japanese-made robot deboning machines are working in refrigerated rooms deboning chicken legs and ham thighs three times faster than the fastest butcher.

Pres. Obama Launches AMP with $70 million for Robotics

Manufacturing is not merely about giving people jobs. The next generation of technological innovations is intimately tied to production processes. (MIT Technology Review)

This new partnership will make sure that tomorrow's breakthroughs are America's breakthroughs. (President Obama at CMU)
With much fanfare, and a trip to the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, President Obama launched a new Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) which includes an initiative for robotics in the form of a $70 million strategic plan focused on enabling new abilities for factory workers, healthcare providers, soldiers, surgeons and astronauts to carry out key hard-to-do tasks with co-robots... small, safe, easily trainable and flexible lightweight helper robots as developed by the SME Project in Europe and in development by Heartland Robotics in the U.S.

From early in his presidency, Pres. Obama has emphasized the need for manufacturing in America -- but he didn't specifically mention or include robotics until earlier this year. When the first manufacturing initiative was declared, the word robot or robotic wasn't uttered once.  Nor were those words included in the two stimulus packages.
Robots will change the way we work. They will have intelligence and awareness. They will be teachable, safe and affordable. They will make us productive in ways we never imagined.

Robots will reinvigorate industry and inject new life into the economy. Making businesses more competitive. Keeping jobs from moving overseas. Demonstrating the power of American ingenuity.

Robots will change how we think about manufacturing. [Heartland Robotics website]
Professor Suzanne Berger wrote for MIT's Technology Review about why manufacturing matters:
Over the past 25 years, a fundamental change in the structure of production has taken place, as digitization and modularity have made it possible to separate R&D and design from production in industries where these functions had previously been integrated within corporations. The experiences of successful firms over the past 30 years make it plausible to think that manufacturing can be outsourced and offshored without any damage to the engines of innovation.

Given the spectacular success of companies like Apple and Dell, they were obvious models to emulate. Their example suggested that advanced industrial countries should focus on their comparative advantage in R&D, design, and distribution and leave manufacturing to less developed countries, with their large reserves of less educated, less demanding, low-wage labor.

[However], companies in wind and solar, biotech, new materials, batteries, and other emerging technology sectors suggests a number of reasons to question whether the IT paradigm will be workable for them. Already it appears that the challenges in scaling up these activities from laboratories through startups into full production of new products and services are different from the issues that software or electronics companies face in their transition from product idea to market. One obvious difference is that scaling up requires much more capital. Indeed, much of the most promising R&D and innovation in solar power involves cheaper and more efficient ways of manufacturing photovoltaics, a relatively mature technology. Companies such as Suntech have become major players in solar power by leveraging advanced manufacturing technologies.

A case for optimism is that radically new manufacturing technologies do appear to be within reach. The demand for new, cleaner energy sources, to name just one example, promises huge markets for technologies that can be manufactured cheaply enough to compete with fossil fuels. But for these ideas to be translated into advanced manufacturing and robust industries, we will require new policies—built on an understanding of why manufacturing really matters.
Thus the timing of President Obama and the launch of AMP.  Last year, with the help and prodding from the AMRON group of educators and automation executives, and by Henrik Christensen and his Roadmap for Robotics, the new Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) was crafted and budgeted. With it's $70 million for robotics, it is patterned along the lines of public-private partnerships in the EU and throughout Asia: consortiums of research facilities, corporations and interested political figures, working together to achieve strategic breakthroughs that will roll out quickly.
While the last 25 years saw tremendous progress due to the Internet, the next revolution is considered to be robotics. Robotics has the potential to be a real-game changer for job growth and quality of life. Today the big commercial robotics programs are in Europe, Japan and South Korea. Through the National Robotics Initiative, the U.S. can regain the leadership position both in terms of basic research and application of the technology to secure future growth. [Dr. Henrik Christensen, KUKA Chair of Robotics at Georgia Tech]
* * *

On the downside, and a personal fear, is that politics is likely to thwart AMP's positive attributes by withholding the money that it takes to make things happen. There are many examples of this and the most recent is the (Open Government Initiative) which was to upgrade and reform government databases and computer systems and make them transparant and available. It started with a bang and has done well but has lost much momentum because it's budget has been cut to less than 25% of what it was. Vivek Kundra, America's CTO, and the head of the program, resigned.
Not surprisingly, Kundra resigned. Why preside over a portfolio of shuttered initiatives? In a phone interview, Kundra acknowledged that he is worried about the program’s funding, but told me that he believes that the open data initiative has so much momentum that it is unstoppable, echoing the sentiment issued in his formal statement that he is “confident progress will continue.”

Whenever a program loses its key evangelist, it normally dies. The Open Government Initiative is likely to suffer a slow, inevitable death. [Washington Post]
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Amir Abo-Shaeer, 2010 MacArthur Fellow
Not addressed in either the AMP or Robotics Initiative are the problems Americans face as their youth choose not to go into careers involving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  One young high school teach from Santa Barbara, CA is a practicing contrarian of that point of view and his story can be found here. His message is worth reading.  He's a very persuasive and inspiring young man with an inspiring track record of successes.