New U.S. “Roadmap” Lays Out Routes to Accelerate Robotic Technologies

Robotics technology is progressing faster than expected for self-driving cars, and drones are becoming ubiquitous throughout the United States, according to a lead scientist overseeing a robotics technology roadmap released last week.

But robotics is moving slower than expected in some key areas, such as the development of dexterous gripper technology, intuitive user interfaces, and in integrating software and hardware through the full chain of systems engineering, according to Henrik Christensen, director of UC San Diego’s new Institute for Contextual Robotics.

Christensen made his observations during a presentation at the 2016 Contextual Robotics Forum, a recent conference at UC San Diego focused this year on “new directions in human-machine interaction.”

His talk amounted to a state-of-the-industry report on robotics, and highlighted key findings of the 107-page update of the U.S. Robotics Roadmap. More than 150 scientists from around the nation contributed to the 2016 report, which was released ahead of the presidential election to lay the groundwork for whoever takes office early next year, Christensen said. He also called for improved education and training in robotics and STEM, especially among younger students from kindergarten to 12th grade.

“I’m the one who gets to [predict] that kids born today will never have to learn how to drive a car,” Christensen told the audience, which included leading roboticists, executives, and others.

Henrik Christensen

Henrik Christensen (UC San Diego photo used with permission)

Within the next decade, the roadmap predicts: “Autonomous vehicles will be capable of driving in any city and on unpaved roads, and exhibit limited capability for off-road environment[s] that humans can drive in, and will be as safe as the average human-driven car. Vehicles will be able to safely cope with unanticipated behaviors exhibited by other vehicles (e.g., break down or malfunction).” By 2026, self-driving vehicles also will be able to reach a safe state in the event of sensor failures, according to the report.

While the technology for autonomous navigation has been advancing rapidly, Christensen said a patchwork of government regulatory issues have become a significant drag on the pace of innovation. A concerted effort is needed to revise regulations and formulate policies to ensure that autonomous vehicles can safely share the road with vehicles driven by people.

Regulatory concerns over civil aviation also are holding back advances with drones, he added.

Apart from regulatory issues, Christensen said the industry developing self-driving cars needs to coalesce on common technical standards instead of trying to advance many different technologies and systems.

It also would help if the emerging industry for self-driving cars adopted a mindset that is more like the sector that has been developing industrial robots. Industrial robots can operate autonomously for three years with no human intervention, Christensen said. “It is important to recognize that human drivers have a performance of 100 million miles driven between fatal accidents,” he said. “It is far from trivial to design autonomous systems that have a similar performance.”

The Danish-born Christensen staked his claim as an oracle for the robotics industry with the release of the first U.S. Robotics Roadmap in 2009, when he was a distinguished professor specializing in robotics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2011, he received the Engelberger Award, the highest honor awarded by the robotics industry, and in 2013 he became founding director of Georgia Tech’s new Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines.

The 2009 roadmap set out to identify the future impact of robotics technology on U.S.  economic, social, and security needs and to provide a strategy for addressing various scientific and technological challenges. The first roadmap also helped to build support for the National Robotics Initiative that President Barack Obama announced in 2011 to accelerate the development of next-generation collaborative robots, or “cobots,” that work side-by-side and cooperatively with people. Since then, Christensen said, the initiative has provided about $400 million in basic funding for robotics research and development throughout the United States.

Contrary to media reports that highlight how robotic technologies are replacing American workers, Christensen maintains that advances in robotics are catalyzing a resurgence in U.S. manufacturing, where 900,000 new jobs have been created over the last six years. “There is a strong correlation between the growth of robotics in manufacturing and job growth in the U.S.,” he said in an interview with Xconomy.

To Christensen, the paradigm for the future of U.S. manufacturing lies in the Lenovo plant in North Carolina and the BMW factory in South Carolina. “We’re bringing back jobs that used to be in Asia,” Christensen said. “If we hadn’t used automation, those jobs would not have come back to the United States.”

He argues that the origins of many robotic systems enabled human operators to extend their capabilities in manufacturing—and that trend of extending the capabilities of workers continues. The Audi plant in Alabama, for example, has the ability to produce 4 million configurations of the Audi A4 automobile, including 250 different steering wheels. Parts for each vehicle moving down the assembly line arrive sequentially, and just minutes before they are installed.

Such capabilities are making Detroit’s automotive industry a hub for robotics, and help explain why Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM), the San Diego wireless technology giant, recently acquired the Dutch chipmaker NXP in a deal valued at $38.5 billion. NXP specializes in chips that lie on the path to self-driving cars, such as running driver-assistance technologies, that represent an enormous global market. “This is going to help Qualcomm grow beyond their traditional market in mobile phones,” Christensen said.

“If you look at the teams developing self-driving cars, most of them are out of Silicon Valley,” he said. Yet “42 percent of all robots in the United States are sold to the automotive industry. Almost all companies doing industrial robots are based in Detroit.”

The robotics technology roadmap also highlights advances in certain industry sectors:

—Service robots that help people in their daily lives are expected to become increasingly important as the generation of Baby Boomers grow older and as “companion robots” hit the market. In the workplace, service robots like Amazon’s Kiva Systems robots are driving down costs and increasing the flexibility and efficiencies of freight-in, freight-out distribution centers. Look for enormous changes in automating operations at FedEx and UPS.

—Healthcare robots are under development to help people with disabilities, support caregivers, and expand the capabilities of surgeons and the clinical workforce in general. Over 20 percent of the world’s population has a motor, cognitive, or sensory impairment—and this number will only grow with the aging of the Baby Boomer generation. “We need to help the elderly stay in their homes,” Christensen said. “And robots can help us get there.”

—Public safety and defense. Unmanned systems technology developed to satisfy military needs is often well-suited for “dual use” applications in public safety and first-responder situations. Large systems like the Predator are being used to patrol U.S. borders, and smaller drones offer a way to provide real-time intelligence in natural disasters. Expect robots to be used increasingly for surveillance of utility power lines, pipelines, and other critical infrastructure.

—Earth exploration and beyond. Robots are ideally suited for environmental monitoring and for remediating dangerous, “high-consequence materials” that include radioactive waste and dangerous biological hazards like the Ebola virus. Robotic systems also are being used increasingly in agriculture and to remotely explore dangerous terrain, including nearby planets and asteroids. Such explorations require a robotic equivalent of the human hand, with the ability to pick up something like a drinking glass without breaking it.

—Research. A key area for future research in robotics lies in human-robot interaction. Future robots are expected to work in human environments, with interactions ranging from a factory operator supervising manufacturing robots to an older adult receiving care from a rehabilitation robot. Such uses will require interfaces that humans can operate effectively and intuitively, even though they vary substantially in background, training, physical and cognitive abilities, and in their readiness to adopt new technologies.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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