Next Big Thing in Silicon Valley: Robotics?

Silicon Valley is known for its software, semiconductor, and Internet companies. Can it become a high-tech nexus for robotics too?

"Yes," says Rich Mahoney, director of robotics at SRI International, in Menlo Park, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley. And to make sure that people know it, he and his colleagues at SRI, along with local robotics companies such as Adept Technology and Willow Garage, have formed a group called Silicon Valley Robotics (SVR). The goal of SVR is to "nurture the robotics industry in this area and help create an environment where other companies would want to come here and start up," he says.

rich mahoney sri international silicon valley robotics There are other robotics centers in the United States, most notably the Boston area surrounding the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and also Pittsburgh, where Carnegie Mellon University resides. The greater Silicon Valley area has Stanford University and U.C. Berkeley, and quite a heritage of robotics accomplishments too, but compared to these other regions, the area has been "overlooked in some ways as being a center for robotics," says Mahoney [photo, right]. The reason for it may be that "there was so much other activity going on here and that robotics was lost relative to all the other things."

Mahoney had already been in robotics for over 20 years before he came to work in Silicon Valley in September 2008. Once he arrived, he was surprised to find there was a real cluster of robotics companies and research groups in this area, and yet unlike Boston and Pittsburgh, there was no organization representing that industry. So he started talking about the idea of forming a group where people in the robotics industry can get together to network and discuss important issues. With Philip von Guggenberg and Regis Vincent at SRI, Mahoney started having weekly meetings to talk about ways to make it happen and put together a mailing list. The group grew organically with volunteers organizing meetings, but it was not until this year's National Robotics Week, when Silicon Valley Robotics endorsed and managed the Robot Block Party at Stanford, that they decided to get exposure.

The group consists of about 40 organizations and is still in an informal grass roots stage. They get together at members' facilities for networking events. Right now the plan is to form a "leadership council" by the end of this year which will define the structure of the organization so that it can move on to the next stage. SRI, Adept, Willow Garage and German electronics company Robert Bosch, which conducts robotics research at its facility in Palo Alto, are interested in participating in this council, according to Mahoney. Currently there is no membership fee and "any organization in the greater Silicon Valley region interested in the robotics industry can be a part of it," he notes.

silicon valley roboticsPR2 demo during a SVR meeting at Bosch's Palo Alto research center.

As robots jump out of the factory floors into homes and communities, the robotics industry promises to grow dramatically, and Silicon Valley will be competing with other areas for talent and investment. Recently, French robotics company Aldebaran Robotics decided to set up its U.S. operation in Boston. Mahoney says that Aldebaran had been looking at San Francisco as a potential location. "I am absolutely convinced that if there was a Silicon valley Robotics fully organized that I could have referred them to, to promote and attract them, that they would be in San Francisco," Mahoney points out.

On the other hand, there is also the need to cooperate with the other robotics regions to get their message heard in Washington, in regards to regulations, immigration and liability issues, which need to be made clear for the market to grow. And from that standpoint, a group like SVR will play an important role as the region's "single voice" so that it can "cooperate to elevate the resources and attention of the whole country."

SVR is also planning on organizing an "investor forum" to get the local venture capitalists interested in the robotics field. Much of the funding in robotics research in the U.S. has so far been from the military budget and for the robotics industry to bloom there is need for investment from the private sector - just as the Internet started with military funding and then blossomed into an industry. When Mahoney gave a talk on the state of robotics at a local industry event, he got "blank stares." "There's a whole industry here that's starting to emerge and if you are in the investment community, you have to pay attention," he emphasizes.

"As an outsider coming in, I find Silicon Valley a remarkable place with an aura, a concentration of technical know-how combined with an innovative spirit. I have no doubt that once the dots get connected, that things will happen quickly."

This article appeared originally at GetRobo.

Norri Kageki is a journalist who writes about robots. She is originally from Tokyo and currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the publisher of GetRobo and also writes for various publications in the U.S. and Japan.

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