What does Obama mean for robotics?

So Obama has been in the White House for about two full months now. Heâ''s signed a supersized stimulus package and has proposed a $3.6T FY2010 budget. Heâ''s recruited some top-notch advisers and signaled what his priorities are to get the economy out of the ditch. All of which begs the trillion-dollar-question: What about the robots?

At least thatâ''s the question that many of us in the robotics industry are asking ourselves these days. How will robotics companies fare under the Obama administration and during this have-we-reached-the-bottom-yet recession? Let me start by saying that, based on what I've seen so far -- increased proposed spending for the DoD and NSF, vocal support from politicians, and Obamaâ''s Address to Congress last month -- this robot geek is feeling optimistic. I explain why after the jump.

Defense

Letâ''s start with defense. Robots and weapons often go hand in hand. I've heard a lot of concern about reduced defense spending under Obama and thus a decrease in the necessary research grants and procurement contracts that keep so many robotics companies in business. But when you pore over the bible-thick budget docs, youâ''ll find reasons to be optimistic. Hereâ''s why.

  • The proposed FY2010 budget (as seen here) actually includes increased -- INCREASED -- spending for the Department of Defense. DoD programs through DARPA, the Office of Naval Research, and other defense research entities have historically been critical to the success of young robotics startups, and many of those companies remain in the defense sector. Though there have been statements about scaling back the Army's Future Combat Systems program (the incubator for systems like iRobotâ''s PackBot and Foster Millerâ''s Talon), I think there will be a preference for unmanned systems to remain funded.

  • While our troops will be mostly removed from Iraq, many robotic technologies may remain behind to keep the peace. Small unmanned ground vehicles like the Talon and PackBot already have cousins in use with U.S. police forces and bomb squads, so why not apply these technologies to peacekeeping forces in Iraq?

  • Work in Afghanistan is ongoing. Talon, PackBot, and UAV technologies like the Predator were all pioneered in the Afghanistan theater -- there's no doubt they'll continue there as "weapons of choice against Al Quaeda" as we ramp up our efforts again.

These military robots offer relatively inexpensive, relatively safe ways to investigate potential threats where a human life might otherwise be in danger, and I think that will be critical for our forces. Unmanned aerial, ground, and underwater vehicles are fundamental to modern surveillance and intelligence gathering while keeping humans out of harm's way. (You can even fight pirates with them.) Obama has said himself that we must invest in military technology of the 21st century and avoid paying for "Cold War-era defense systems". Robots are the way to go.

Education

Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former New York governor, isn't my favorite guy in the world, but I have to applaud his suggestion for the use of stimulus funds in this Slate column:

In educationâ''just as much a part of our infrastructure as bridges and roadsâ''here is a small investment that is one of my favorites: Provide funding for robotics teams at every school. If you ever want to see intellectual competition in the arena that matters todayâ''technological wizardryâ''visit the robotics competitions that now exist in some schools. Make these competitions as universal as football. Make it cool to design the next cutting-edge video game or iPod.

This kind of top-level political support of programs like FIRST, BEST, BotBall, and more is inspiring, and will make it easier to bring the opportunities to school districts throughout states and to encourage local companies to sponsor teams and competitions, helping to raise the next generation of robotics engineers and inventors that will create the technology and businesses that drive our economy.

Medical

I think the biomedical and medical industries, as a whole, are going to see amazing growth under Obama (not least because of renewed funding for stem cell research). Modernized healthcare is a huge part of the stimulus plan and proposed budget. Robots still represent a pretty small percentage of this industry... We've got robotic surgery systems, telepresence systems for doctors, and robots that deliver goods throughout a hospital. There are even bots whose job is nagging you about exercising more. All of these systems are still underutilized on a large scale, but theyâ''re key to a modernized healthcare infrastructure. Robots could help make hospitals safer and more efficient. There are also quite a few automation systems used in the manufacturing of medical equipment and some pharmaceuticals. Remember: robots arenâ''t just 16-DOF manipulator arms and walking humanoids. Some robots look more like claw vending machines but they sense, they process, they actâ''just like other robots. While I doubt we'll see a lot of federal funding going directly to acquisition of any of these robots, I think that the increased attention to biomedicine and healthcare will bring opportunities for companies like these to contribute to the growth and changes in the industry.

Manufacturing

As with defense, the Obama administration has emphasized that they want to bring American manufacturing into the 21st century. And let's face it -- at this point, to increase productivity, you're going to need automation. Factory and warehouse automation, long the purview of companies like Fanuc and Kuka, is starting to expand with new robotic systems from companies like Heartland Robotics (full disclosure: also my employer) and Kiva Systems . From the proposed budget:

The Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership will receive $125 million to enhance the competitiveness of the Nationâ''s manufacturers by facilitating the adoption of more efficient manufacturing processes.

Gosh, "efficient manufacturing processes"? Sounds like robots to me. If tax incentives and investments like these are offered to companies willing to modernize their factories and bring manufacturing work back to the United States from China -- a compelling option given the number of Chinese factories that closed in the last year -- I find it likely that companies that provide these technologies and integration services will see welcome spikes in business.

Consumer

And so we get to consumer robotics. What does the Obama White House means for my Roomba-inhabited lair? Sorry, folks. Here's where I'm not terribly optimistic just at the moment. All consumer sectors are going to have trouble this year, so there's nothing special about robotics -- they just happen to be caught up in the storm. That said, with increasing willingness to adopt new technologies in the home, when the economy does recover, I hope we'll see Roombas as commonplace as toasters. By which I do not mean Cylons. I think those would fall under defense spending, actually.

There are many other unexpected places where could we see our industry grow like crazy (or take a big hit) thanks to US spending. And this doesn't even take into account what economic stimulus plans in other countries, like Japan, may do for the industry. I think there's a lot of potential in the coming years -- for once I'm excited to watch my tax dollars at work!

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