“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.