Before we can even have a bubble in robotics…

Our industry needs a better methodology for managing robotics development.

I just a had a great entrepreneurship conversation.  My entrepreneur friend opened my eyes to the possibilities for robotics in an industry, platform space, and application that I had pretty much written off.  The application was using robots to collect data–the simplest and earliest task for any class of robots.  He had taken a fresh look at an industry he knew intimately and seen that there was an opportunity to do something extraordinary and make some money.

This friend is not a robotics expert, but he’s been awakened to the potential in the robotics field.  His big concern and great hesitancy to  jumping into this business is establishing a workable business model.  He sees the potential in the opportunity with the vividness of an insider, but when it comes to the robotics he could use, he sees the immature, expensive junk of an outsider’s eye.  He’s vividly aware of the danger he might not structure the business or implement the technology in such a way as to be the guy who becomes profitable and grows first.  He saw that it would take a lot of money and time just to prove out the concept and that it might take much longer to figure out the right business model.  Meanwhile, his fledgling robotics company would be burning cash at the combined rate of a software, hardware, and an operations company with a direct sales force–not a very pretty proposition.

I didn’t really have anything to say to him on that front other than hackneyed cliches about iterating, pivoting, and the value of moving early.  It really occurs to me that my friend is already following what little we know about how to build a robotics company.  Be a great whatever-you-are first (medical device, logistics solution, toy, etc.) then have it be a robot.   Don’t market the thing as a robot; market it as a new technology solution to a real problem that is worth money to solve.  Be willing it iterate (fail on first attempts).  Go to market with the least capability that you can get paid any money at all for.   All great principles, but it seems like we’re still missing the kind of prescriptions that have developed for software.

The Lean Start-up movement, combined with movements like Agile Development have brought much more rigor to how software development in early stage companies is managed.  More traditional software and engineer models are still applicable to projects where the desired outcome is well known.  In most of my conversations with engineers, it seems like robotics engineering has not reached a similar stage of maturity.  It is difficult for robotics engineers to communicate to business leaders when they will know something that allows for opportunities in business decision making, let alone accurately forecast the true cost of a development job.

The most successful robotics companies do a great job managing development.  However, when you talk to their founders or engineering leads, they are often at a loss to explain what they did differently from failed efforts.  They might explain how they avoided some basic pitfalls–like outsourcing design work–but they often have a very difficult time offering an affirmative description of what they did, why it worked, and how they kept the engineering process and the business on track towards the correct goal.  If robotics is ever going to be the semi-conductors of the 80’s, web of the 90’s, or social and mobile of today, our industry will need to develop a compelling description of how to stay on track towards successful technology and business outcomes.

Pittsburgh has a robotics meet-up!

Time to update the cluster comparison statistics, Pittsburgh has a robotics meet-up!  Join the AUVSI crew for some whiskey tasting.  I’ll be disappointed to be out in the Valley on Monday night.

http://www.meetup.com/Pittsburgh-Robotics/

East Coast Chauvinism in Robotics: Time to Face Facts, Silicon Valley is Kicking Our Ass

A cleaned-up version of this article became my first post on Hizook.  http://www.hizook.com/blog/2012/06/25/east-coast-chauvinism-robotics-time-face-facts-silicon-valley-kicking-our-butt#comment-971

_______

I have lots of love for Pittsburgh in particular, but it really pisses me off when people on the East Coast repeat a bunch of falsehoods (See #8) about how Boston and Pittsburgh compare to Silicon Valley and the rest of the world.  Many people in Pittsburgh and Boston—including people I call friends and mentors—smugly think that the MIT and CMU centered robotics clusters are leading the world in robotics.  This is demonstrably false.

If leadership in robotics means forming companies, making money, or employing people, then Silicon Valley is crushing everyone—no matter what the Wall Street Journal editorial page says about their business climate.  I’ve previously published an analysis of the Hizook 2011 VC Funding in Robotics data that shows that the Valley gets 49% of total VC robotics investment worldwide.

I’d now like to add an analysis of U.S. public companies (see bottom of the page).  Basically, the ‘Pittsburgh and Boston are the center of the robotics world’ story is even more ridiculous if you look at where public robotics companies are located.  Silicon Valley is crushing the other clusters in the U.S. at creating value in robotics and in building a robotics workforce in public companies.  (A forthcoming analysis will show that this true worldwide and if you include robotics divisions of public companies not principally engaged in robotics such as Boeing and Textron.)

77% of the workforce at public robotics pure plays is in Silicon Valley companies.  An astounding 93% of the market capitalization is headquartered in Silicon Valley and even if you exclude Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG) as an outlier, the Silicon Valley cluster still has twice as much market capitalization as Boston.

The public companies that I deemed to meet the criteria of being principally engaged in robotics, that they had to make and sell a robot, and not have substantial value creating revenues from businesses not related to robotics are listed in the table below.

The one company that I believe might be controversial for being excluded from this list is Cognex (NASDAQ:CGNX).  However, while trying to do decide on whether to include them, I found their list of locations.  They have three locations in California including two in Silicon Valley.  That means that this ‘Boston’ company has more offices in Silicon Valley than in Boston.  I’m not an advanced (or motivated) enough analyst to find out what the exact employee breakdown is, but combined with the fact that they make vision systems and supply components rather than robots, I elected to exclude them. I acknowledge that a similar case could be made about Adept (NASDAQ:ADEP) that just made a New Hampshire acquisition, but I have decided to include them and count them towards Silicon Valley.   I do not believe that either of these decisions, substantively impact my finding that Silicon Valley is the leading cluster when it comes to public company workforce and value creation.

I’m hoping the people who are spreading the misinformation that Silicon Valley has to catch-up to Boston and Pittsburgh will publish corrections.  I believe that this is important, particularly because I want to see Pittsburgh reclaim its early lead in robotics.  So many robotic inventions can trace their heritage back to Pittsburgh, it is a real shame that Pittsburgh has not used this strength to create the kind of robotics business ecosystem that one would hope.

It is impossible for communities to take appropriate action if they do not understand where they stand.  I hope that this new data will inspire the Pittsburgh community to come together and address the challenges of culture, customer access, and capital availability that have been inhibiting the growth of Pittsburgh’s robotic ecosystem before they lose too many more aspiring young entrepreneurs—such as me—to the siren song of California.

Company (1) Ticker Employees (2) Market Cap $M (3) % of Employees % of Market Cap Robotics Cluster
Accuray NASDAQ:ARAY

                   1,100

  463

20%

2%

SV
Adept NASDAQ:ADEP

                       183

43

3%

0%

SV
Aerovironment NASDAQ:AVAV

                       768

  577

14%

2%

SV
Hansen NASDAQ:HNSN

                       174

 135

3%

1%

SV
Intuitive Surgical NASDAQ:ISRG

                   1,924

  21,840

36%

88%

SV
iRobot NASDAQ:IRBT

                       619

  606

12%

2%

BOS
MAKO Surgical NASDAQ:MAKO

                       429

  1,110

8%

4%

Other
Stereotaxis Inc. NASDAQ:STXS

                       171

 13

3%

0%

Other
Total

                   5,368

24,787

100%

100%

(1) Companies are U.S. public companies that have been identified by Frank Tobe’s or my own research as principally engaged in robotics
(2) Employee Count as of Last 10-K Filing
(3) Market Capitalization as of 6/24/2012

Who is investing in robotics

Inspired by getting a second e-mail about Grishin Robotics, I was parsing the VC data from Hizook to see who actually does invest in robotics.  I was surprised to see that there are firms that actually make multiple investments in robotics.

1)  The Foundry Group has invested in both Orbotix and the Makerbot.  This makes some sense in that this is the Techstars crew.  They get consumer technology and nerd culture Makerbot and Orbotix both cater to the maker / gadget-lover / nerd-cool market with consumer products.  Although I’m sure that both companies have possibility of being onto something much bigger whether that is distributed 3D printing changing manufacturing or augmented reality games changing the way that we think about the world, they are both at this point in the toy / hobby market.

2)  Draper Fischer Jurvetson shows up once with Heartland Robotics (now Rethink Robotics) and once again through their ‘Midwest’ affiliate Draper Triangle on Aethon‘s latest raise.  You’ll notice that both of these are practical, safe around humans, commercial applications with predictable, well understood businesses as the customers of these robots.

3) Bezos Expeditions also shows up as an investor on Hizook’s list twice.  He (they?) splits the difference by investing in Makerbot Industries and Heartland/Rethink Robotics.  I guess you could deduce a theme around making stuff, but I think that it might have more to do with personal relationships or just what Jeff Bezos thinks is cool as shit.  I know this post is full of links, but take a look at Bezos Expeditions.  Their portfolio is a space company, a fusion company, a 10,000 year clock with no commercial purpose, and a bunch of other really cool stuff that might scare the bejeezus of a regular VC–along with some relatively conventional investments like Air BnB.

I hope that when Grishin Robotics makes investments, it becomes the kind of investor that signals to follow-on investors that companies it chooses are solid and likely to become profitable.  We need more people entering the business of robotics and investing in robotics if this technology is going to reach everyone it should.   I commend Dmitry Grishin on putting his money where his convictions are.

Who are the top 20 academic roboticists?

In trying to compare the clusters, one of the most important and difficult to measure factors is the quality of the academic pipeline in each of the three clusters.  I thought about looking at patent filings, but that seems too hard and not truly indicative enough of what we are trying to measure.

A single lab, without a single patent could potentially blow the doors off company formation and economic impact in robotics.  I’d like to propose a different measure, the top 20 (or some other number) roboticists in academia… then lets see where they are and where their knowledge is creating value.  On the Pareto principle, we expect most of the useful output to be from the top researchers.  Also, I’d like to call attention to the fact that I don’t have criteria for what makes a researcher “top.”  I promise it is less trying to curry influence than the RB50, but I fully admit to not having the full insight especially into Boston, Japan, and Switzerland.

So here’s the start of my list in no particular order with blatant bias towards CMU:

Sebastian Thrun; Stanford; http://robots.stanford.edu/ Corporate Work and Spinouts: Google Car, Google Glass, Udacity

Red Whittaker; CMU; http://www.ri.cmu.edu/person.html?person_id=339 Spinouts: Red Zone Robotics, Astrobotics

Rodney Brooks; MIT; http://people.csail.mit.edu/brooks/index.html Spinouts: iRobot, Heartland Robotics

Henrik Christensen; Georgia Tech; http://www.hichristensen.net/ Non-spinout: National Robotics Initiative

Homayoon Kazerooni;  UC Berkeley; http://www.me.berkeley.edu/faculty/kazerooni/ Spinouts: Ekso Bionics (Formerly Berkeley Bionics)

Rich Mahoney; SRI; http://www.sri.com/news/expertsources/mahoney.html License Arrangements: Intuitive Surgical, others

Sanjiv Singh; CMU; http://www.ri.cmu.edu/person.html?person_id=290; Spinouts: Sensible Machines

Hagen Schempf; CMU; http://www.ri.cmu.edu/person.html?person_id=267; Spinouts: Automatika (Acquired by QinetiQ-North America)

Howie Choset; CMU; http://www.ri.cmu.edu/person.html?person_id=47; Spinouts: Medorobotics

Behrokh Khoshnevis; USC; http://www-bcf.usc.edu/~khoshnev/; Spinouts: Contour Crafting

Consumer Driven Supply Chain

The press is starting to take an interest in having a supply chain truly driven by consumers.  Perhaps, they already inhabit a market that is much closer to this ideal than those of us who make physical products.  With information becoming increasingly available and inventories and batch sizes falling, the completely custom, consumer-driven supply chain is coming.

http://www.outsideonline.com/blog/hackers-look-to-outdoor-gearheads-for-inspiration.html

Oh yeah, and I get quoted.

Who is on the federal dole in robotics? Texas?!!

I just posted my rankings for federal support of the robotics/unmanned systems industry in each of the three clusters.  What was really striking is how if you are in defense robotics, you actually probably don’t want to be in one of the clusters, but in the DC/MD/VA area–no surprise there.  However, if you want to win big in space robotics contracting you want to be in Texas.  Their space contracts that hit the search term robotic are about equal to everyone else’s robotic and unmanned contracts put together.  That’s pretty rich considering who the Great State of Texas send to D.C. and their fondness for research funding.

Off my soapbox, I’m going to call this one for Boston between the clusters.  They have done the best at least according to this crude metric, but as I note in my comments on the cluster summary, I would be willing to revise my methodology for comparing government investment if someone can propose a better method.  I would be particularly interested in focusing on basic research grants.  Comments public or private are welcome.

Compared to what?

The Pakistani affiliate of the International Herald Tribune has a great summary run down of recent drone strikes under the Obama administration.  http://tribune.com.pk/story/391839/unmanned-war-on-terror-no-longer-a-covert-war/ It details strike after strike against militants that are operating freely in Waziristan and the tribal areas.  It also produces a summary statistic of civilian casualties which, even if taken at face value, seems to indicate that these strikes exhibit a very high degree of proportionality and discrimination.

I’m out here in San Francisco and I sometimes get some troubled reactions when I tell people that I led a drone unit when I was in the Army.  Eventually telling  these people that my drones were not armed quiets them down, but there is a fundamental misunderstanding about how drones are different and similar from other types of war.  Drones unfortunately have some misperceptions about how they compare to other types of military engagements.

I would like us each to sit in the chair of senior commander or official who has just received intelligence from multiple sources (as it seems these strikes are probably based on) that is really good, but not 100% certain.  There is a militant–who the Pakistanis allow to travel, train, and organize unmolested–who is intent on killing not only U.S. soldiers, but also our civilian allies and females who dare to leave the home to get an education.  He believes that it is his god-given moral imperative to kill all these people.  What would you do?

A)  Nothing

B)  Ask the Pakistanis who have been arming this guy to arrest him

C)  A drone strike

D)  A manned aircraft strike

E)  A commando or sniper raid

Okay, even Marines get this one: when in doubt, Charlie out.  Seriously though, C is the only ethical choice.

Doing nothing means that you have let an evil, violent man go about his plans to kill someone’s son or daughter because he or she believed in a world where everyone has the freedom to make something of themselves.  By the same token, B is even worse, because now you’ve not only let him go free, you’re endangering your sources and methods of finding him in the first place by telling the Pakistanis what you know.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is every probability that any method besides a drone attack would be worse when measured by the standard of proportionality and discrimination.  Drones usually strike using the smallest guided air to ground missile in the U.S. arsenal, meaning they tend not to cause more damage than is absolutely necessary to destroy valid military target.  Would a commando team be as precise?  What if the team itself was attacked by our Pakistani ‘allies?’  Could it or a manned plane follow the target and wait until this small missile was the appropriate munition to use to ensure the destruction of the target?  The answer is no, they could not.

Of most concern to all of us who treasure innocent life is the principle of discrimination which means that you are only attacking legitimate targets.  Although this is where drone are most criticized, this is where they beat all other methods of apply force.  Can you imagine any other weapon so precisely attacking only legitimate targets?  There is no other weapon system where every action of the user is recorded, second guessed, and subject to real time absolute supervision by higher authorities.  Once a pilot is over a target his judgment of the scene and need to protect himself while completing the mission takes precedence over a second guessing boss back at base–and rightly so.  Even more so with a commando team, the commander of that mission has complete autonomy and discretion once his forces are committed.

But let’s be clear, commandos and pilots make more mistakes, not less, by being on scene.  They are affected by all kinds of pressures, are in mortal danger, and are being asked to make snap judgments on their own.  They screw-up.  They drop bombs on the wrong house–or even the wrong army.  Snipers in over-watch shoot civilians all the time–they don’t mean to, they just do.  None of these things are war crimes, they are just mistakes–unacceptable tragedies–but still just mistakes not crimes.  I think that most of us, civilian or military accept this.

Drone operators on the other hand work in secure locations, can loiter over their target, and stalk him for days or weeks until they get a clean shot.  They even have lawyers looking over their video feed as they work!  These are carefully supervised, deliberate operations.  That said, this is still war, where even professionals make mortal mistakes with the best information available.  But even or especially in war, we must do our best to protect those principles we hold dear and every analysis says that drones are the most moral option.  To those who would say that drones are immoral, I would ask in comparison to what?

 

It is well that war is so terrible–otherwise we would grow too fond of it.  -Robert E. Lee

Robotics Coverage is Fluff

So I just discovered this military and aerospace electronics report that gives what is actually a pretty good run down on the recent contracts signed in the UUV space by the Navy in the last year.

http://www.militaryaerospace.com/articles/2012/06/uuv-video.html

Unfortunately, it appears to be written entirely from the press releases that the Navy puts out.  It fails to mention that most Navy unmanned maritime programs are struggling and the ONR research efforts on long endurance UUVs actually represent a Navy retreat from acquisition UUV programs like the cancelled BPAUV and LMRS.

I’ve got a forthcoming article that I hope to publish in Proceedings with a professor at CMU the talks about how the Navy could re-energize its unmanned systems programs.  The real problem is that the Navy is spending its research money on stuff that I’m willing to bet it won’t actually want.

Not that defense coverage is alone in being fluff.  I mean… really?  “Rather than get locked into a single niche where we’d actually have to build a business–you know like find paying customers and stuff–we’ll just put out fluff press releases.”  Who are these guys?

Needless Deaths

Fire season has just begun this year and already there have been two needless deaths that can be attributed to the FAA and Forest Service’s failure to embrace unmanned and robotic technology.  There is absolutely nothing about the fire reconnaissance mission or the tanker mission that cannot be done better, cheaper, and more safely by an unmanned aircraft.  These men did not need to be in that plane.

The crazy thing about it is that the Forest Service/BLM incident commanders are some of the few people in North America that can actually tell the FAA to go pound sand.  They get to put up a TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction) over their fire and they control all air traffic in the TFR.  Wildfire response crews do not do any night operations because it is considered too dangerous for them to fly at night.  Still, the powers that be have not allowed unmanned aircraft to play a substantial role in firefighting despite successful demonstrations in 2008.

My most sincere condolences to the families of these men.   They are exactly the kind of people that we need more of in society–people that will take risks to protect us all.  We–as a country and a society–are literally killing these people with our failure to embrace unmanned and robotic technologies.  I don’t want to be unsympathetic to the difficulties of change in government organizations and the good work that I’m sure the employees at Forest Service and BLM are doing, but when we’re making widows and orphans with our crappy policy, we all need to step up to the plate to take action to change it.

If I were the U.S. Congress I would:

1)   Call in the FAA, Forest Service, and BLM and tear them all a new one for their foot dragging on unmanned aircraft.

2)  Mandate the conversion of the whole tanker and most of the fire reconnaissance fleet to unmanned aircraft within 5 years.

3)  Direct the Forest Service and BLM to provide unmanned aircraft support at night in the TFRs to incident commanders this fire season.

4)  Give the BLM and the Forest Service some money to do this.  One of the main problems with wildfire firefighting is that there is a negligible advance procurement budget, but a nearly unlimited budget for reimbursement of labor to fight fires.  This is not a good deal for the country, spend a little bit in advance and lets save lives and money next fire season and every season thereafter.