Here’s the Full Agenda for Xconomy’s Robo Madness Bash on April 10

When Google is buying robotics companies left and right and Jeff Bezos is promising to send you Amazon packages via drone aircraft, you know that change is speeding up in the robotics industry. And we’ve got a great way to help you get a handle on it. Robo Madness, Xconomy’s signature annual technology event in Silicon Valley, is coming up exactly four weeks from today, on April 10.

All the pieces of this event, to be held at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA, during National Robotics Week, are now in place. In fact, we’ve just published the full agenda for the afternoon here. It’s a pretty amazing lineup of speakers, if I do say so myself.

We’ll start off with a keynote presentation by Scott Hassan, the founder and CEO of Suitable Technologies. He’ll talk about Beam, the company’s mobile remote presence device. As Hassan explained in my recent profile of Suitable, the company doesn’t think of Beam as a robot. But a lot of the thinking (and expertise) at the company came out of robotics research at Hassan’s R&D firm Willow Garage. And the idea that workers might be able to “beam” in to their mobile avatars via the Internet and steer them around the workplace clearly owes a lot to previous work on remote steering and manipulation and two-way audio-video communication.

Next we’ll hear from a Willow Garage alum, Brian Gerkey, who now heads the Open Source Robotics Foundation. OSRF is the keeper of ROS, the Robotic Operating System, which is a sort of Linux for robotics, allowing commercial and academic researchers to make faster progress by drawing on common base of control software. Gerkey will give an update on ROS’s rapid spread through the robotics industry.

After that we’ll shift gears and talk about how robots are being used today to teach kids concepts in programming and engineering. We’ll be joined by the leaders of three companies experimenting with small robots as platforms for gaming and education: Vikas Gupta of Play-i (see our feature story here), Keller Rinaudo of Romotive (featured here), and Graham Ryland of Barobo, which makes the Linkbot educational robot.

As a special treat, the education panel will be followed by a solo talk by David Mindell, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and of the History of Technology at MIT. Dave is an old friend from my graduate-school days, when we were both studying for our doctorates in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. Dave already had an extensive background helping to build undersea robots such as the Jason remotely-operated submarine at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and he went on to write a wonderful book called Digital Apollo, about the computer systems on board the spacecraft that American astronauts flew to the moon. At Robo Madness he’s going to talk about the lessons we’re learning as we send autonomous vehicles into extreme environments at sea, in the air, and in space.

At Xconomy's 2013 robotics forum, iRobot CEO Colin Angle appeared via remote presence on an RP-VITA device made by iRobot and Intouch Health.

At Xconomy’s 2013 robotics forum, iRobot CEO Colin Angle appeared via remote presence on an RP-VITA device made by iRobot and Intouch Health.

Also flying in from the Boston area: Paolo Pirjanian, the chief technology officer of pioneering robotics firm iRobot. The company is famous for making home robots that help you vacuum, scrub, or mop your floor and clean your gutters or swimming pool. But what’s not so well known is that iRobot devices help project soldiers from IEDs in battle zones, and help doctors and patients communicate in clinical settings via remote presence. Pirjanian, formerly the CEO of Evolution Robotics, which iRobot acquired in 2012, will explain how iRobot’s products are being transformed by new capabilities in areas like navigation and manipulation.

After a networking break, Helen Greiner from CyPhy Works will make her second appearance at an Xconomy robotics event. The iRobot co-founder joined us back in 2012 to talk about strategies she’s developed as a leader of Massachusetts’ strong cluster of robotics companies, a topic of obvious interest to her colleagues in Silicon Valley. This year she’ll be sharing more details about CyPhy Works, which is working on a new generation of tethered UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) for reconnaissance and communications in defense.

Continuing with Dave Mindell’s theme of autonomy, we’ll welcome a special guest moderator, New York Times senior writer John Markoff, to the stage. John broke the stories about Google’s self-driving car project, and its stealthy campaign to acquire a series of robotics companies. At Robo Madness he’ll have questions for a panel of technologists working on autonomous robots for package delivery (Jason Calaiaro of Matternet), land-based reconnaissance and research (Ryan Gariepy of Clearpath Robotics), ocean exploration (James Gosling of Liquid Robotics—also the father of the Java programming language) and surveillance and law enforcement (William Li of Knightscope).

But even as robots turn up in these new environments, engineers are exploring new ways to make them practical for manufacturing and logistics, the fields where they first began to shine back in the 1970s. Melonee Wise, co-founder and CEO of Willow Garage spinoff Unbounded Robotics, will join us to explain how her team has taken advantage of ROS and other established technologies to reduce the cost of mobile manipulator robots into the five-digit range. (Unbounded’s one-armed UBR-1 robot is available for just $35,000, less than a tenth the cost of Willow Garage’s PR2.)

Even though big companies like Google and Amazon are getting interested in robotics, the real innovation in the field is still coming from venture-backed startups. That’s why it’s a tradition to wind down our robotics event with a panel on the investing scene. This year we’ll be joined by partners from three venture and seed-stage firms, including Peter Hebert from Lux Capital (an investor in CyPhy Works), Aydin Senkut from Felicis Ventures (CyPhy Works, Romotive), and Devdutt Yellurkar from Charles River Ventures (Rethink Robotics). Also joining this panel will be Frank Tobe, editor of the widely read site The Robot Report and co-founder of Robo-Stox, the first exchange-traded fund made up exclusively of stocks in robotics companies. Rich Mahoney, director of SRI International’s robotics programs, will be our guest moderator for this segment.

To finish with a bang, we’ll invite all of our keynote speakers back on stage for a final “jam session” to debate the likely directions for robotics in 2014 and 2015.

If you buy a Robo Madness ticket before April 1, you can take advantage of our special saver rate. So head over to our registration site now, and I’ll see you at SRI on April 10.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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