“Ask me anything: The answer is a robot! …I’m a roboticist.” -Dr. Rodney Brooks

On Friday, I had the pleasure of attending Rodney Brooks’ first public talk on the Baxter robot, “A New Class of Industrial Robots.”  Although, there wasn’t a great deal of new technical information available beyond what the barrage of press exclusives has already announced, it was a fascinating look at the thought process that went into building the Baxter.  I’ll attempt to share some of the ideas that he shared at Carnegie Mellon to best of my deficient note taking abilities.  You can can also watch the video here.

My general impression is that the Baxter is a real product.  That’s really exciting to see in robotics!  We don’t get true products all that often.  I mean this robot can be used by people who cannot code and don’t know how to do math.  You can use a Baxter at a basic level just by pressing some buttons and moving the Baxter’s arms.  A ‘power user’ might use the menu system to enable (or more likely disable) features that make the Baxter so easy to use.  A forthcoming software development kit will let the robotics engineers tinker if they like.  The overall impression I got however is that the Baxter is a not a fundamental breakthrough so much as a breakthrough product.  It is designed around a specific set of user needs, responds to their preferences, and doesn’t attempt to do everything.  I could see how it might delight people who need a box packed or something sorted.

Another interesting aspect of the Baxter is how it takes an alternative design approach to current industrial robots.  The Baxter focuses on tasks that have some degree of compliance.  Most industrial robots are focused on precision.  It will be interesting to see how these two classes of robots end up interacting, competing, and complementing one another.

ReThink has an ambition to bring back a lot of manufacturing value to the United States.  The idea that much of the drudgery in a factory can be completed at an all in cost of $3/hr definitely puts the economic rationale for taking production offshore into question.  We all know that there are tremendous efficiencies achieve from having production close the large markets and design centers, this will make it possible to further substitute capital for the lowest skill labor and create many more valuable manufacturing jobs in the United States.

“Advanced Manufacturing doesn’t mean manufacturing advanced stuff.”  Dr. Brooks pointed out that although employment in manufacturing has remained stable or declined over the last several decades, the output of American manufacturing has been on a nearly uninterrupted increase.  This has been driven, in part, by a march up the value chain into business to business and complex products.  Dr. Brooks hope that the Baxter will let us look at having

Why isn’t Baxter mobile?  First, Baxter doesn’t need to be mobile to fulfill its intended function and adding mobility probably would add cost and complexity that the customers don’t require.  Baxter can be moved on casters easily by a worker, but it doesn’t need to move on its own for most applications.  Second, Dr. Brooks’ non-compete agreement with iRobot prevented him from working on mobile robotics until recently.  Maybe, we’ll see a mobile Baxter soon.

Finally, I’m really curious to see how the end effector strategy plays out.  ReThink  is going to publish an interface that includes mechanical, electrical, and software specifications.  Currently they provide an end effector that appears to be only a two finger gripper that can be customized for size to some degree.  I’m curious if there will be a lot of end effectors that come out and to what extent the Baxter and ROS become a platform for further innovation in robotics.

The Baxter was designed in conscious analogy to the PC.  Will it usher in a new age of robotics the way the PC did?  From a business perspective will Baxter-type platforms become commoditized and can ReThink retain its edge?   Dr. Brooks was refreshingly humble about the future, but it was clear that he is optimistic and willing to learn more from the market for this disruptive product.

If you’re going to RoboBusiness have fun at the public unveiling of the robot!

Hizook 2011 Notes

Be on the look out for a forthcoming analysis of the Hizook 2011 VC in Robotic List on Hizook about the funds that invest in robotics.   I’m publishing my research notes here so they don’t foul up the article.  Most of this was sourced from company websites, CrunchBase, local media, or whatever I could find using Google with my limited attention span, I think I even remembered to cite a few as I was making this.

The only thing I’d really like to call your attention to, dear reader, is the complete lack of transparency in the private markets.  You’ll see that there are places I could find a round, or an amount, or fund but nothing else.  A lot of the poor citation is me trying to find a better source.  Private transactions have no organized data so if this can be the faintest candle for finding funding for robotics, then I’ve done my job.

As always, I’d love feedback.  I’m hungry for data!

More Hacker Spaces! Techshop coming to Pittsburgh

Techshop is coming to Pittsburgh.  This will be a great addition to Pittsburgh’s DIY / Hacker culture–which has a slightly different flavor in Pittsburgh because-unlike the big coastal cities that are ‘rediscovering’ the idea of building stuff-Pittsburgh is a city that never stopped thinking of itself as working, industrial city.   On a personal level, I’m excited that Techshop is coming to Pittsburgh with a focus on veterans.

I’m not sure how we should view these kinds of DIY/Hacker spaces in terms of the robotics ecosystem.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any successful start-ups that got their start in these kinds spaces.  If you look at the hacker space websites, the kinds of projects that they tout as commercial successes are more in the consumer device space (e.g. artistic iPhone docks)  as opposed to commercial robotics.  On the other hand, they seem to be a good marker of the kind of culture that builds robots.  So whether this is indicative or causative of a great robotics scene, welcome to Pittsburgh, Techshop.

As an aside: I’ve updated the cluster comparison with a few of these developments and more DIY/Hackerspaces.  There are links in the cluster comparison to several resources in this arena.

What cluster does a company with HQ in Boston but more offices in Silicon Valley belong to?

I’ve got more comprehensive data on public robotics companies due to some updates suggested over at hizook.  However, I’m at a loss as to how to classify Brooks Automation and Cognex.  They both make automation components for various kinds of industrial applications and they both have corporate HQ outside of Boston with two offices each (probably the legacy of acquisitions) in Silicon Valley.

At a loss as to how to classify them, I’ve made a new category for them on my charts.  If you have thoughts about how to get good acquisition data–especially as a lot robotics companies can be acquired in a transaction that is ‘immaterial’ to a 10-K/Q for public company–I’d love to hear them.

And here is the raw data.  Not all market caps were taken on the same day.

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/

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

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.

Incubation in the Clusters

Once again, Silicon Valley is showing the rest of us how its done (see “Incubation” for the data).  Robotics only feels like it is poorly incubated in the Valley, because it doesn’t have incubators with multiple branches in the Valley like biotech and software do.  At least traffic sucks so bad in the Valley that when robotics gets going in the Valley it will need multi-branch robotics incubators just so people won’t have to drive.

All jealousy of California’s good fortune aside, robotics businesses are hard to start.  Not only do they have all the complexities of a software business (with a much more challenging test cycle), but they also have other parts that are equally challenging.  They are a hardware business, a manufacturer, and often a distribution or operations company as well.  I don’t see too many 22 year old college drop-outs running manufacturing and distribution businesses–they are too complex and require too much capital to just let them fail like a VC can do with a mobile app company.  Hence these kinds of companies are run by people who know what they are doing.  How do we create more entrepreneurs who ‘know what they are doing?’

For robotics to take off, we are going to have to find models that produce profitable companies with much less wasted capital than software venture capital does.  Incubation and mentorship are probably going to be really key to making this happen–good job to the Bay Area for getting on this.  If community leaders want to lay the foundation for something really extraordinary in their community, get a robotics incubator going in your community.

Cluster Activities (Continued)

The Massachusetts Tech Leadership Council is a really great organization.  I’m not sure how they get their members to pony up for the services that they provide (I’d like to know for my activities in Pittsburgh!), but having a professional cluster organizer like Elizabeth Newstadt and an organizational hub for promotion of the entire industry is fantastic.  I’ve heard that there are some frictions from the fact that the cluster crosses state lines and it is the “Mass TLC” as opposed to a New England-wide organization.  Still, the degree of organization that the cluster centered on Boston has is astounding.  A good deal of credit for this goes to the Mass TLC.  As an example, the survey they do of the robotic cluster is fantastic.  The other clusters should undertake similar surveys which would increase the value of Boston’s survey exponentially.

On the other coast, the San Francisco Bay Area is clamorous and still fairly ill defined–by which I mean there are a lot of people who may or may not be a part of the robotics industry.  Many robotics people think of themselves as being in the medical device industry, software, or electronic hardware–but not necessarily robotics per se.  On top of that, tons of people in the Bay who are not in robotics professionally provide the clamor and enthusiasm.  For example, all of my personal friends that build and fly drones for fun live in California.  I’m from back East, so the selection bias should run against the Bay.  They just love technology, nerdiness, and doing “your own thing” in the Bay–and robots fit the bill perfectly.  In fairly short order, I suspect that Andra Keay and the other folks behind the Silicon Valley Robotics Cluster and Robot Launch Pad will provide some of the rally flags to bring order to this energy–then the valley will be a sight to behold.  The Silicon Valley robotics people I’ve met think that their community needs to catch-up to Pittsburgh and Boston, but this probably only makes them dangerous since my data is starting to show that they are equal anyone.

Pittsburgh is a small community.  It is really great–everyone is super friendly and if you’re in robotics everyone knows everyone.  If you find yourself in Pittsburgh, I would be happy to introduce you to them and they will be nothing but good to you.  Things can happen really quickly because there is high degree of trust and community spirit.  My personal take on the robotics community in Pittsburgh is that there are things that need to be done collectively to get to the next level (VC education, a robotics incubator, more diversity of academic research, etc.).  The personal dealing model is going to be helpful, but not sufficient, to get the Allegheny robotics cluster to grow to the size that the region wants it too.  More formal organizations, supported by bottom-up enthusiasm for things like happy hours, meet-ups, and demos is going to be required for the Pittsburgh robotics cluster to scale.

Cluster Activities

How do we judge the quality of a robotics cluster’s activities?  The point isn’t actually to have a lot of meetings.  The point is to spark those interactions which can create or advance enterprises whether through ideas, collaborators, or resources.

Since we can’t measure that directly, I propose the Meetup.com test.  It is a crude metric, but should serve our purposes.  The idea is that the number meetup.com events coming up with relevant key words should serve as a rough proxy for how many people are out after work trying to create the next thing.

By this metric, Silicon Valley is crushing the rest of us.  Not only do they have more money, and better weather, but also they are out having more drinks.  Data is in the following the link.  http://robocosmist.com/robotics-clusters/  Meetup.com test performed June 2, 2012.

Accordingly, San Francisco is the only place I’ve ever been served a martini made by a robot–by the Drinks Advanced Research Projects Agency no less.   Fortunately for getting girls back to my place, my gin martinis are still the best.  But the John Henry moment in robotic drinks is coming…