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Roboticists to ride wave of power, chip and sensor improvements

Executives at MIT forum say improvements and reduced costs in sensors, computation and batteries, as well as automated labor need will cause industry revolution.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--The Boston area has become a leading robotics hub, with a larger cluster of related companies than any other area in the U.S., according to a group of panelists assembled for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Enterprise Forum on Robotics Wednesday night.

MIT Stata Center
The Stata Center, where the MIT Enterprise Forum on Robotics was held Wednesday night, houses MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL). Candace Lombardi/CNET

The group, which consisted of executives from ABB Robotics, Brooks Automation, iRobot, Kiva Systems, North End Technologies and Vecna Technologies, said robotics companies are drawn to the university-rich New England area because of their unique need for highly educated employees from a multitude of disciplines.

While there are some great robots, the panelists said, they are not yet user-friendly enough to be viable as consumer products. Part of that is due to a lack of quality designed interfaces, something that will come from hiring people in disciplines other than just software and engineering.

"Here's a little thing for you engineers out there. Engineers make the suckiest interfaces ever," said Rod Brooks, the director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) and the chief technology officer of iRobot.

After field soldiers had trouble figuring out how to control the PackBots iRobot initially made for the military, one iRobot engineer suggested that the robots needed better trained people to work them, not 19-year-old soldiers, according to Brooks.

"Now we ship (PackBots) with a game controller and have instant usage. Know your market user," he said.

PackBot controller
iRobot's PackBot with a video game style-controller. iRobot

Robotics is an interdisciplinary industry, but also one that's wide open to new methods and business models, according to Debra Theobald, chief executive officer of Vecna Instustries, the maker of the BEAR (Battlefield Extraction and Retrieval Robot).

Some robotics companies, like Vecna, are beginning to follow the software company model and sell services as well as products. Vecna , for example, customizes and implements the open-source JAUS robotic platform to fit the specific needs of customers. (Note: We've fixed that JAUS reference from an earlier misspelling.)

Since robotics is such an interdisciplinary field, its enhancement will largely be dependent on the breakthroughs in other tech industries. Specifically, the panelists said, it comes down to better sensors, renewable or rechargeable power sources and better real-time computational power.

Storage is no longer an issue, as the iPod has shown. Improved computational power will come as software developers learn to better capitalize on quad-core chips through parallel computing. Sensors are a technology that will have to come down in cost, as well as improve in performance in order for robots to improve.

"I was at DARPA. I saw Stanley. While that's very exciting what they don't tell you is that they made sure it would win," said Tom Ryden, CEO of North End Industries, who is also a former iRobot employee.

"It was a beautiful sunny day and there was no wind. What would have happened if it was raining? That car wouldn't have made it ten feet. Sensors are really the area that need a lot of improvement...We need sensors that can provide instant feedback and at an affordable cost," he said.

BEAR from Vecna
The BEAR (Battlefield Extraction and Retrieval Robot) from Vecna Technologies. Candace Lombardi/CNET

Nintendo is one example of a non-robotic company helping the robotic industry with its technology developments. Accelerometers such as those used in the Wii game controller have come down in price since their introduction into such a high volume product.

"We just need to be the benefactors of other industries that are going out and pushing the limits," said Theobald.

"Power is an issue, whether it's making renewable or rechargeable, that will be driven by other technologies. We see battery power improving in our computers and communication devices," she said.

With these improvements already on the way, and an anticipated need for more automation in manufacturing, robotics will go through a revolution similar to the one that took place with software, communications and the Internet. And it will happen just as the world begins to need more robots.

With Chinese wages growing by as much as 35 percent per year within the last few years in some regions and an expected growth in its older population, China will not be the cheap labor haven it is right now for U.S. companies 50 years from now, said Brooks.

"People think it may jump to Africa, but there are a lot of structural needs there, so I think it's going to go to robotics," he said.