A new year is here. Welcome to 2013.

The time around New Year is a great time to reflect on how far we came in 2012 and where we might be going in 2013. Looking at this from a professional point of view I think robotics is a very exciting place to be.

2012 we had a number of great things happen:

  • The joint NSF, USDA, NIH, and NASA National Robotics Initiative saw its first set of awards. In total more than 700 proposal were received, which were reviewed in 20+ panels. The request for funding was close to $1B and with an projected budget of $45m it was no surprise that success rates on proposals was low. However, we now have officially a set of ~30 projects that are funded under the NRI. I am sure we will see many proposals submitted for the 2012/2013 round.
  • A new organization the US Robotics Virtual Organization or robotics-vo for short was launched. This is a national robotics network similar in spirit to the European Robotics Network – EURON, that was launched around 2000. The network is trying to coordinate – a roadmap for robotics in the US, educational resources, best practise for technlogy transfer, and a press club for dissemination of information about robotics.
  • As one of the first efforts the Robotics-VO has setup a set of five workshops on roadmapping. This in turn has enabled an update of the US National Robotics Roadmap. The old roadmap from 2009 was in need up an update and many things has happened since then. In addition there was a need to augment the roadmap with consider military/first responder needs and also to align the roadmap with the NASA agenda. All of this has been accomplished and shortly (February) the revised roadmap will be published. A briefing to the congressional caucus on robotics has also been planned.
  • During 2012 we saw some major commercial successes. KIVA was sold to Amazon for 700m+ which clearly illustrates the potential for use of robot technology in logistics. An area we can expect to see further growth in during 2013.
  • The year 2012 we also saw the public announcement of the first robot Baxter from Rethink Robotics (former Heartland Robotics). A two armed robot that is considered safe for use in human environments at a price of less than $25k is a major achievement. It appears to be well suited for simple pick and place operations. It will be interesting to get a hands-on experience to see how well it does in real applications. With a higher speed it could be very interesting for logistics applications. The stiffness could be a challenge for real assembly operations, but it will be interesting to test it. Also a developer API is supposed to surface shortly for academic users.
  • There are by now a fair number of dual arm manipulator systems and given a mobile platform it is only natural DARPA launched the Disaster Robotics Challenge, where teams use humanoid platforms to demonstrate performance for first responder type scenarios. Given what we saw at Fukoshima in Japan during March 2011 this is a very natural and timely opportunity.
  • Apple announced that they will start manufacturing the next iMac line of computers in the US. The fact that we have started to in-source is a big deal. Through use of automation we can close the barrier between manufacturing with low salary workers and smart manufacturing systems. Others such as Tesla have decided from the outset that manufacturing will be in the US.
  • Willow Garage spun-out their perception work in Industrial Perception and the ROS effort was made independent in Open Source Robotics Foundation, and other systems such as the Point Cloud LIbrary and OpenCV was also made into independent entities. An industrial version of ROS was also launched through the South Western Research Institute.

For 2013 there is no doubt that we will see a number of new interesting opportunities

  • The National Robotics Iniative will continue to grow and as more agencies become active players in the program there is no doubt we can build sustainability, growth and longer-term perspectives. It will be important to see further engagement of industry to make sure that new R&D efforts lead to results that are commercialized. The objective is clearly to try to at least have a budget of $100m for 2013/2014.
  • The first Robotics-VO PI meeting will take place and it will be a great opportunity to get a broader sense of what is contained in the program and also to try to engage industry in transition of results into real products / processes
  • The first results from the DARPA DRC will be shown. Initially it will be in simulation, which will be a good start.
  • More and more companies such as Motoman, Rethink Robotics, Schunk, Yujin, … are providing two armed manipulation system. It will be exciting to see new applications with these systems in manufacturing, logistics and service applications. The real challenge is now in the integration of these systems into applications
  • For the application of robots it will be interesting to monitor the Industrial ROS effort. Traditionally industry has had a hard time embracing open source. There are a number of challenges in terms of stable releases, a unified architecture, proper code reviews, etc that must be adopted to make these systems reliable enough to be used in major manufacturing systems. However this challenge has been overcome before. Excellent examples include Linux, GNU (sub-systems), … Through consideration of best practise in these areas there is no doubt that robot systems integration can arrive at a similar place, which could lead to a new degree of economic growth due to lower price of deployment and a higher degree of interoperability.
  • The EU is launching a new framework program by the end of the year. The new program is named Horizon 2020. The most relevant program is in the cognitive systems and robotics division. The program enable broader international collaboration (INCO) and the initial focus will be around inclusion of US partners in new projects. That is – US universities and companies – can participate as equal partners in the projects and also be paid by the EU as part of a projects. In this past this has been possible in theory but in reality it has been a major challenge to make this happen.

These are merely a few of the things we can look forward to in 2013. This is going to be another exciting year! Happy New Year to Everyone.