Researchers in robotics have traditionally faced two debilitating obstacles: terribly expensive parts and difficulty attracting funding from anyone outside of a small corps of true believers.
But the field could be in line for a major jolt. Robotics experts see a “perfect storm” heading their way, thanks in no small part to the human ravages of war.
Just as the constant march of technology is driving down the cost of key components, top universities in robotics are reporting major increases in federal funding, with the Defense Department the biggest spender.
The military desperately wants to reduce the number of soldiers killed by roadside bombs or surface-to-air missiles — cheap implements of war that have felled scores in Iraq. Many in the Pentagon believe the answer lies in autonomous air, sea and land vehicles.
The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University has seen federal funding jump 48 percent since 2000, and by 117 percent since 1994. Much of the $24.8 million in federal funding for 2003 came from the Pentagon, said institute director Chuck Thorpe.
The university’s corporate funding for robotics is also up 40 percent since 2000, with $7.8 million arriving last year.
Other universities, such as the California, Virginia and Georgia institutes of technology, say funding for robotics is up at least 50 percent or more in recent years.
At the same time, the materials that comprise the most technologically advanced components in robots, from optics to software, are becoming “dirt cheap,” said Dan Kara, who covers the industry for Robotics Trends.
Technology that lets robots perceive and overcome obstacles has made unparalleled bounds largely because the cost of charge-coupled devices (the core of every camera), microprocessors and varied sensors has fallen away as rapidly as computing power and memory have expanded.
“Nobody is inventing the wheel anymore,” Kara said. “The core of research that occurred over the last 10 years is driving this market intellectually and now there’s a ton of money coming from the military side of the aisle.”
Pentagon's expanding wish list
The Pentagon, which spent $3 billion on unmanned aerial vehicles between 1991 and 1999, is expected to spend upward of $10 billion through 2010. Under a congressional mandate, the Defense Department is pushing for one-third of its ground vehicles to be unmanned by 2015.
The Army is seeking portable reconnaissance robots, transport robots and fighting vehicles that could be deployed in place of the Abrams tank. The 42-pound PackBot, which can climb stairs and work under water, already has been used by U.S. troops flushing out Afghan caves. The Marines have developed a similar robot half that size.
The Pentagon’s research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is sponsoring more than 40 projects in robotics, spokeswoman Jan Walker said.
For example, DARPA has given Carnegie Mellon $5.5 million to develop the Spinner, a five-ton combat vehicle that could operate on almost any terrain, under any conditions, without a foot on a pedal or a hand on a steering wheel.
CalTech’s Joel Burdick, an engineering professor who has been involved in robotics since the early 1980s, is using DARPA funds to develop neuroprosthetics with which the brain could control machinery, “giving pilots a third hand, so to speak,” he said.
“Funding is largely military now,” Burdick said. “The projects are more focused on applications. It’s not seed money.”
It is difficult to determine exactly how much money is going into research at universities because government contracts also go to corporations, such as Boeing Co., that work closely with schools like Carnegie Mellon. Northrop Grumman Corp., Intel Corp. are among other companies that have sponsored university research or maintain their own robotics projects.
Boeing recently sent an engineer from its Phantom Works division to work full time with a robotics team at Carnegie Mellon and put two other engineers on call, according to company spokesman Glen Golightly. A partnership between Boeing and CalTech is pending.
John Reid worked on robotics systems for 14 years at the University of Illinois. Three years ago he was hired by Deere & Co. to manage its Intelligent Vehicle Systems, a research unit aimed at developing autonomous machinery that could distance humans from dangerous farm work.
“There’s billions being spent by the government developing robotics and you look at that and you can’t say that’s not going to have an effect on the commercial sector,” Reid said. “That investment by the military is going to spin off.”
The engineers and computer scientists behind the machines have even found themselves in the national spotlight. Last month, many were mobbed by camera crews in California’s Mojave Desert as 15 teams lined up for an autonomous 150-mile race. The prize: $1 million from DARPA.
'Not a paper exercise'
Although no team won the money, DARPA’s Grand Challenge is just one several competitions that will draw top robotics talent from across the country this year.
Robert Michelson, a principal research engineer at Georgia Tech, is holding the fourth annual International Aerial Robotics Competition in July.
Robotic aircraft will be required to fly three kilometers (1.8 miles) to an urban setting, find a building, then enter it via a window or a hole in the roof to find a target inside. The robot must then transmit an image back to base — all without human interference.
The Georgia Tech team has already built a craft that can fly the three kilometers and identify the building and the points it can be breached, Michelson said.
“This is not a paper exercise,” Michelson said. “This is real-world show-me.”
There is some concern among robotics experts, however, that expectations will exceed reality, especially for those providing the money.
It has happened before.
After industrial robotic arms first entered the marketplace decades ago, there was a backlash when the corporate conception of robotics didn’t quite meet with the technological realities of the time.
Robots could then perform only simple, repetitive tasks. A widget gone askew on an assembly line could halt production until a human lent a hand.
“I think there was also a tendency to overplay what was available, but in the U.S., companies wanted to cram robots into the assembly line,” said CalTech’s Burdick. “You can’t throw robots into a process. You’ve got to know how to integrate the technology.”
Robotics specialists were wrestling with skewed perceptions again last month in DARPA’s Grand Challenge in the desert.
Carnegie Mellon’s robot made it the farthest before veering off course and snapping an axle just over seven miles from the start. Virginia Tech’s entry, a converted golf cart, made it only 100 yards.
“One of these guys from a big network come up and said, ‘I guess that was a big bust,’ when we were all thinking it was magnificent,” said Virginia Tech professor Charles Reinholtz. “Besides, our vehicle failed because of human error.”