ALBUQUERQUE, NM -- Robotics and intelligent machines already touch the lives of most Americans. And yet that impact is negligible compared to the role those technologies can and will play in America's future, in areas diverse as surgery, entertainment, and packaging the foods we eat, say many of the nation's top robotics experts meeting for the first time recently in Albuquerque.
The experts met for three days at the National Needs Workshop on Robotics to identify barriers to wider use of automation, and to formulate plans to overcome them.
"We sense that the time is right for a national initiative to spur new applications of robotics and intelligent machines. There's a confluence of technologies that will make this possible," said George Bekey, professor of computer science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and president of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society.
"For the first time users, vendors and developers of these robotics technologies are meeting and openly discussing ways to cooperate, to create new markets together, with no axes to grind," said Pradeep Khosla, a professor in The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "We're creating a web of interdependence."
The workshop began Oct. 28 with the dedication of the nation's most advanced robotics research center, the Robotic Manufacturing Science and Engineering Laboratory (RMSEL) at Sandia National Laboratories. The workshop was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy, and organized by the Robotics and Intelligent Machines Coordinating Council (RIMCC), a joint committee of the Robotic Industries Association and the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society.
Many of the approximately 70 robotics experts – representing industry, vendors, universities, and the national laboratories – said the workshop provided a forum to break down existing barriers, exchange ideas, and to create new products and markets. Robotics and intelligent machines already are vitally important for the assembly and disassembly of nuclear weapons and waste remediation, and are assuming a critical role for industry in the manufacture of everything from small precision electronic components, clothing, to automobiles. Yet the intelligent machines industry has recognized a need to identify and conquer barriers that impede the spread of robotics technologies to other major industrial sectors, such as food preparation, agriculture, health care, entertainment, and construction.
RIMCC Chairman Pat Eicker, who also serves as director of Sandia's Intelligent Systems and Robotics Center, said the workshop was a big step in solidifying support and cooperation among all segments of the robotics and intelligent machines community, from users and suppliers to those involved in research and development.
"It has been recognized for years that intelligent machines are one of the key critical technologies of the future," Eicker said. "Yet because of the diversity of the technologies that are needed, the diversity of the people who are potential users, and the diversity of companies and government agencies that are interested in intelligent machines for their particular applications, it's been very difficult to get a common thrust going in the area of intelligent machines."
Eicker said policymakers in Washington have recently expressed their support for a national robotics and intelligent machines initiative.
"We now have both sides of the equation enthusiastic – the robotics and intelligent machines community and Washington," Eicker said. "Now comes the hard work of planning, prioritizing, and putting this initiative into action."
Discussion among workshop participants of current and future needs of robotics and intelligent machines already is providing a source for much of that planning.
"We're seeing a lot of connection between people who have things and people who need things," said Greg Bryant, technical director for Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, Calif.
Bryant said he is interested in how robotics can be better used in the entertainment industry. Current uses range from audio-animatronic figures in theme parks to automated scenery changes for Broadway shows. The computer graphics industry, which has grown from creating special effects in movies to producing full-length features like "Toy Story," also has strong ties to robotics technologies, he said.
Hollywood's depiction of robots typically has outshone the current state of robotics technologies, but Bryant said those technologies are rapidly fulfilling the big screen images.
William "Red" Whittaker, director of the Field Robotics Center within The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon, said industry is still just breaking the surface on ways in which robotics technologies can be applied. "Every year you are surprised by something new that's really big," he said. "We saw that effect five years ago when medical robotics applications broke."
Whittaker said he also sees changes in the nature of how robotics are perceived. "Traditional successes were based on cost benefits to industry," he said. "Now we're talking about how these technologies touch people directly, whether it's in the area of entertainment, surgery, or helping to clean a home for the elderly."
Others attending the needs workshop included Klaus Nielsen of Strategic Technology Planning-United Parcel Service; Bradley Beeson, principal hardware design engineer for Lockheed Martin; Brian Carlisle, chairman and CEO, Adept Technology, Inc.; Craig Battles of Boeing Commercial Aircraft Co.; and Fred Kiener of Ford Advanced Manufacturing Technology Development.
Philip Monnin, president of the Robotics Industry Association and president of Motoman, a robotics company, praised the National Needs Workshop on Robotics as a major first step in outlining problems and developing solutions to future robotics research and development.
"This is just a beginning, but it has accomplished a lot," Monnin said. "We have never sat down in a room and had good, frank discussions like this. There is an awareness coming out of here that there is no established national agenda for robotics and intelligent machines and that there definitely needs to be one."
Monnin said it's vital that federal government laboratories such as Sandia be closely involved with industry and research universities in developing new robotics technologies. Monnin said Sandia's ability to integrate sensors and computer software with existing industrial robots has resulted in valuable dual-use technologies that industry is eager to use. Sandia's agile manufacturing project, designed to make manufacturing more flexible and responsive to market needs, is of particular interest to industry, he said.
"Most everything that is done at Sandia's robotics center has a direct application to industry," Monnin said. "We need ways to fund this research, and that means more government and industry involvement."
A white paper summarizing workshop discussion and accomplishments, as well as recommendations on what should be done next, is scheduled to be issued about the end of November.
Photos available upon request
Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin Company, for the United States Department of Energy.
Chris Miller, firstname.lastname@example.org (505) 844-5550
Pat Eicker, email@example.com (505) 844-5827