Robots, Jobs and Economic Development

Recently there has been a lot of press stories about robots, the economy
and its relation to employment. The stories are mixed. Some claim that
we will loose jobs to robots others are saying that through use of
robots manufacturing in the US will grow. In reality both of those
viewpoints are valid and understandable. Unfortunately most of the
stories are presented as one or the other. A more two-sides presentation
is beneficial.

Over the last few years we have seen an increase in use of robot
systems. Robots have been used for dull, dirty and dangerous jobs. This
includes welding, sorting in warehouses, electronics assembly. It is
clear that introduction of robots to perform a job that a human was
doing before might displace a person. There are three kinds of uses: 1.
introduction of robots to perform tasks that cannot be performed by
humans, 2. introduction of systems to assist people, and 3. introduction
of systems to do work formerly performed by humans. The motivation for
displacement of labor is typically higher performance, which can be
lower price, higher quality or improved performance.

Throughout history there has been a worry about new technology. About
130 years ago people were worried with the introduction of steam engines
and assembly lines. What would happen to the labor force? Eventually we
had the automotive industry that could generate affordable cars for
everyone and a significant number of new jobs. Around 1980 secretaries
were worried about their jobs as typing pools disappeared due to the
introduction of personal computers. Today most people handle their own
email, … but there are nonetheless more administrative assistants
doing travel, scheduling, meeting minutes. The jobs have become
increasing skilled. So one of the challenges we are experiencing is that
some unskilled jobs gradually are getting automated and the displacement
in jobs is from unskilled to skilled labor. It will be important for the
work force to continue to receive training.

As an example through use of robots it is possible to reduce the price
of manufacturing, which in turn enables in-sourcing. Apple has
announced a new plant in the US and so has Lenovo. Tesla manufactures
green cars in California. Welding is performed by robots just as it has
been done for 30 years in Detroit. Some of the jobs carried out in
foreign countries can only be insourced through use of automation.
However, every job in manufacturing creates another 1.3 associated jobs
in services, supply chain, etc. The economy is growing and slowly we are
recovering jobs. The current trend is that jobs that were outsourced
earlier are returning to America, some of them through use of automation
and some new ones for manufacturing and some in associated industries.

US FIRST FRC competition for 2013 season announced

Today at 11AM EST the US FIRST announced the game and rules for this seasons game. The accouncement can be seen on the US FIRST web-site

The annoucement was broadcast on the NASA public feed. The game is termed ultimate ascent. The field will have two pyramids and the robots will be required to use friesbees to score on the buckets at the end of the fields. Double points for scoring during the autonomous period. At the end the robots can climb the pyramids to score more points. The code is sAucersFlyRobotsClimb!

We had 53 teams at the launch event at Georgia Tech. The event was organized by the RoboJackets and sponsored by the Woodroof School of Mechanical Engineering, RIM@GT, GM, National Instruments, United Technologies, College of Computign, Kimberly Clark, Automation Direct, MSC Industrial Supply. More than 800 high school students showed up for the event.

Good luck to everyone for the 2013 season and remember to have fun.


A new year has arrived

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.

Check-out the Robotics-VO website

The website for the US Robotics Virtual Organization – Robotics-VO is now live. The website has a number of useful tools. It covers the progress on the update of the US National Roadmap for Robotics. It has a fairly comprehensive calendar with calls for proposals, conferences, deadlines for papers, and we are starting to see educational material emerge aswell. Please check out the site. Much of the information is only available after you register. For now only people in the US can register to use the site (sorry).

Driverless Cars: Are we getting there

Recently there has been a lot of discussion in the media about driverless cars or more appropriately autonomous cars. That is, cars where the driver does not have to have his/her hands on the steering wheel. A number of competitions have taken place to evaluate the performance of current technology. Early work both in the USA and in Europe  resulted in cars that drove in traffic over extended distances. The DARPA Grand challenge saw 5 teams complete a desert course of more than 50 miles by 2005. Two years later the DARPA urban challenge saw 6 teams complete a 60 miles city like course with traffic . The DARPA Urban Grand Challenge motivated companies such as Google to pursue design of cars that can handle traffic, respect the traffic law to the letter and interact with other entities such as pedestrians, bikes, etc. on the road. Today legislation has been passed in the state of Nevada to allow use of driverless cars as part of regular traffic. In addition, both Florida and California have initiated efforts to revise their traffic laws to allow use of driverless cars. There is no doubt that there is a need for serious political considerations to make this possible across all areas as also noted by Brian Albright – “Driverless Cars – a politically hot potato” 

Other news stories have indicated that driverless cars only can be deployed in combination with significant investments in infrastructure. The argument is that such an investment would be too significant and either reduce deployment or prevent deployment entirely. The use of common infrastructure such as embedded landmarks/beacons is not a new idea. Such an approach was tested as part of the California Partners for Advanced Transportation TecHnology (PATH)  project
about 15 years. The approach is technically feasible, as it was used for convoys of cars to travel down 20 miles of highway, but the solution is economically unrealistic. However, we have seen tremendous progress on new sensor technology, computing and robust algorithms, which in reality alleviates the need for such fixed infrastructure.

We have seen steady progress on embedded new technology into cars. Already today some cars will warn you if there is another car in your blind spot. Some cars have technology to monitor if you brake the best possible way to avoid a collision. These are all ways of slowly augmenting the cars to improve safety and relieve drivers of some of the aspects of driving. Such a gradual introduction of technology is likely to be important to long-term adoption of the technology. There is no doubt driverless cars is the way of the future. It allows us to reduce the number of accidents, we can utilize infrastructure more effectively, and drivers can use commute time to do texting, read email, and whatever else would be a more productive use of their time. In the US alone more than 30,000 people are killed in traffic accidents every year. Our infra-structure has at best an 10% utilization, which could be doubled through use of driverless cars. According to US Department of Transportation the average American spends close to one hour per day commuting to / from work. Using such time productively could have a significant potential for the individual and society.

The introduction of driverless cars will allow people to continue to use a cars as they age, it will be safer, more economical, we will have better productivity, etc. All in all the driverless cars is a great investment for society and for individuals. However, it must be recognized that this will be an incremental process so it will take time before such solutions are deployed across multiple nations and across multiple brands of cars. The progress see with the Google Driverless cars  from the Google X-Labs and the recently reported drive from Parma, Italy to Shanghai, China are both great examples of how far technology has progress and an clear indication of things to come.

IFR/Metra Martech study predicts job creation through use of robots



About a year ago IFR (International Federation of Robotics) contracted the company Metra Martech to study the impact of robotics on employment. Typically people predict that introduction of robots result in loss of jobs. Recent publications such as the “Make it in America” by Andrew Liveris, CEO and Chairman of Dow Chemical have suggested that through adoption of advanced manufacturing technologies the industrialized nations can compete with countries where low-salary workers are responsible for the manufacturing.

The recent Metra Martech study estimates that close to 3 million jobs today are enabled by use of 1 million robots. In addition the report predicts that over the next five years another 1 million jobs will be created due to adoption of robotics technology for applications in consumer electronics, solar & wind, and advanced fuel cell technology.

Both Japan and Germany are leaders in use of robotics technology and this has resulted in  increased employment in sectors such as automotive, that traditionally have been heavy users of robotics technology.

The report predicts that robots will continue to be major players in automation of factories, but that the new application areas will include elderly care and medical applications. In addition homeland security and defense will maintain its position as a high value market.

More information about the study is available from the IFR web site. The report can also be downloaded from their website.

Georgia Tech Advances Manufacturing Robotics Research Through $1M Donation

ATLANTA – Nov. 10, 2011 – The Georgia Tech College of Computing’s Robotics and Intelligent Machines (RIM) Center will use a gift of nearly $1 million of robotics equipment from Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated (CCBCC) to create a Manufacturing Robotics Logistics Laboratory on the Georgia Tech campus. The new laboratory will allow RIM faculty and students—who come from across Georgia Tech, including the Georgia Tech Research Institute—to study the use of robotics in supply chain and fleet management.

Example setup for doing logistics for the beverage industry

“Automation has made possible a vast number of efficiencies in modern commercial logistics and manufacturing,” said Henrik Christensen, RIM director and KUKA Professor of Robotics. “Using supply chains as an example, if we can use robots to optimize the entire process from start to finish, we can make improvements on a whole range of measures, such as end costs to consumers and environmental impact from transportation.”

The new 3,400-square-foot logistics lab initially will be outfitted with $944,000 in hardware from a CCBCC prototype bottling plant. Built by KUKA, a world leader in manufacturing robotics and system integration, the equipment includes robots, automated guided vehicles (AGVs), conveyor technology, safety components and other system technology. KUKA has provided the resources and manpower for delivery and set-up of the robots.

Also providing resources to move the automation equipment to Georgia Tech and start-up the AGVs is Efacec USA, a leading supplier of Automated Material Handling and Storage Systems located in the greater Atlanta area.

“We are happy to partner with KUKA to bring Georgia Tech students the opportunity for hands-on learning with sophisticated robotics equipment,” said Lauren Steele, vice president of corporate affairs at CCBCC. “Using this technology, these students will be able to develop commercial applications in manufacturing that will strengthen our economy and create American jobs.”

Specifically Christensen said Georgia Tech will use the laboratory for three purposes: creating optimization algorithms for logistics; testing sensing equipment such as automated cameras and laser sensors; and for supporting the annual Virtual Manufacturing and Automation Challenge, organized in conjunction with the National Institute for Standards and Technology.

In addition to the specific uses Christensen envisions, he said the new lab will open up new possibilities for robotics students and faculty.

“As Georgia Tech continues to advance its robotics research in industrial systems, this major donation will give our students unparalleled access to a professional, industry-quality facility,” Christensen said. “No other university has a similar facility.”

”KUKA is very excited about the opportunity to collaborate with Georgia Tech in the field of manufacturing and logistics,” said Dr. Christian Wurll, Technical Director for Logistics of KUKA Systems North America. “The lab will be used to intensify the research and development in mixed case palletizing, mobile robotics and new manufacturing processes. In addition KUKA is glad to setup and support a state of the art lab environment which will inspire the young generation and will get them in touch with real world applications and equipment.”

“While Efacec has already been involved with Georgia Tech for the past few years in helping to develop engineering curriculum for the power transmission industry, we are pleased to continue our relationship in being a part of the creation of this new Manufacturing Robotics Logistics Laboratory,” said Jorge Guerra, Executive Director for Business & Operations of Efacec USA. “This new lab will give engineering students access to high-tech equipment with which they can increase their exposure to robotics and logistics.”

Manufacturing—along with health care and service robotics—is one of the three main robotics areas to which the United States should devote the bulk of its research focus and support in the future, according to a 2009 report by the Computing Research Association.

M-ELROB 2012

The European Robotics Group would like to invite you to the 7th European Land-Robot Trial (M-ELROB 2012).

The DEAD LINE for participants is: 18.Dec 2011

The ELROB is conducted in order to provide an overview of the European state-of-the-art in the field of unmanned ground vehicles with focus on short-term realizable robot systems.

The scenarios in 2012 are:

  1. Reconnaissance and surveillance
  2. Transport – Movement and Mule
  3. EOR/EOD/IEDD/CIED (for professionals only!)

We will have three different categories for the robots:

  1. tele-operated
  2. supervised autonomy (e.g. with safety driver)
  3. full autonomy

The ELROB will again be accompanied with a comprehensive exhibition covering a wide variety of robotics aspects.

For more information please visit the web-page ““. If you wish to participate in the trials and/or the exhibition, please
send your reply asap to:

Invitation to participate in Robotics-VO

Dear US Colleagues

An american robotics network is being launched. The network is termed the Robotics Virtual Organization (Robotics-VO). The formation of the network is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, but has to be self-sufficient
by the end of the first year.

The network will initially serve four functions.

  1. Maintenance of a research roadmap for robotics in the US
  2. Support for educational efforts across all levels
  3. Document and promote processes to ensure adoption of robotics technology by industry and society at large
  4. Dissemination of information about robotics.

A steering committee will be setup to organize the roadmap process. The expectation is that an updated roadmap will be published every two years. The process will be similar to the one adopted by SEMATECH for semiconductors.
We will review the present roadmap. From this current timelines will be updated and new opportunities will be identified. As updated roadmaps are published the Robotics-VO will work with agencies to consider how the plans can be adopted by different agencies. We encourage US researchers to become actively engaged in the road-mapping process. We expect to launch a discussion about the revision of the roadmap before end of November 2011 and hope to have a revised roadmap published by May 2012 (ICRA 2012). The roadmap process is managed by Vijay Kumar, UPENN and Henrik I Christensen, GaTech. To register for updates and to become engaged in the road-mapping please send email to

For educational efforts there is a need to consider how we can utilize resources across the community to educate people across K-12, universities, community colleges, … The educational effort involves aspects across sharing of lecture material to lab exercises, to resources for education such as lab platforms, to standard kits for design of robots by students and standard software packages to expose students to methods within robotics. We will build up a repository of lecture material, lab exercises, standard software packages, hardware platforms, picture database of robots, a video channel of US robots on YouTube, … The educational robotics effort is coordinated by Chad Jenkins, Brown and Rafael Fierro, UNM. To become engaged in this process of setting up and defining educational resources please send email to

For technology transfer and adoption of robotics technology there is a need to team up with organizations such as RTC, RIA, AUVSI and other industry organizations to i) study successful examples of tech transfer from universities, ii) to understand the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises, iii) to promote new applications of robotics, iv) to consider ways to promote transition of technology through competitions such as the recently organized RoboBowl. Could we imagine regional robobowls? It is anticipated that a strong collaboration will be setup with RTC, RIA and AUVSI to document best practice for transition of new technology to established companies and start-ups. The effort will be coordinated by Bill Thomasmeyer, RTC. To become engaged in the process please send email to and we will make sure you are added to the mailing list.

It is well-known that a single segment on CNN might have the same impact as N papers at ICRA/IROS. There is a need to have an educated media presence and to build relations to well established media. A press club will be organized participation of a number of known media outlets. The objective is to have an objective dialog about robotics across media such as major TV channels, big newspapers, and science outlets such as scientific america, new scientist,…. Robotics-VO will build up a club of journalists that will be educated on the value and limitations of robotics technology to avoid the frequent – “Jobs will be lost to robots” without a clear articulation of pros and cons. In addition a catalogue of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) will be defined to allow media to have access to people from academia and industry that can speak with authority about a particular subject. We will have a central phone number through which media can get pointers to the best experts in the US for particular subjects. If you have an interest to be engaged in discussions with media or to be listed as a subject matter expert please send an email to We will follow-up to make sure you are listed under the right category for future media queries.

We are at present trying to get a web-site launched However, it is valuable to get the different efforts underway already now. We thus encourage you to send email to the provided addresses to become engaged in the launch and operation of the robotics-vo. The success of the robotics-vo is essential to the future of robotics in the US.

We are slowly setting up an academic and industry advisory board for the robotics-vo.

If you have an interest in participation on the respective boards you are most welcome to contact the founding coordinator of the network –

If you have questions, comments, suggestions, feedback please contact us as soon as possible.

Yours sincerely
Henrik I Christensen
Robotics-VO coordinator