Defense Spending and Robotics Research

Rachel Maddow had an interesting segment the other day about the effects of significant defense spending on robotics research in America:

It’s not every day you see a news/pundit show on a major cable network dedicate 10 minutes of airtime to funding of research. Of course, if anyone would do it, it would be Rachel Maddow (I love her Moment of Geek segments).

History has shown us that R&D investments for military missions can lead to significant leaps in technological innovations. WWII gave us the field of Operations Research, radar, the computer. Of course, the most well known advancement in recent times is the Internet, which spun out of a need to link together various early networks.

Returning to Rachel’s segment, she compares military and commercial advancements in robotics over the past decade. Without a doubt, many of these advancements will eventually make it into commercial and industrial applications as viable markets emerge. Superhuman exoskeletons will lead to advanced assistive technologies for the growing elderly population. Surveillance and autonomous vehicles will transform the security, transportation, and manufacturing industries. Eventually.

So what’s the problem? Plenty of robotics research is happening under Defense programs led by ONR, DARPA, AFOSR, Army, etc., and a lot of papers, algorithms, designs, and patents are tangible outcomes. In fact, the U.S. is the unparalleled leader in military robotics. The problem is that we aren’t a leader in any other major area of robotics. Not even close.

A government-funded 2006 report entitled “International Assessment of Research and Development in Robotics” compares policies and research priorities in robotics around the world. The authors of the report find that Japan, Korea, and Europe are all investing significantly more than the U.S. in various areas of robotics, both government AND private sector funding. Additionally, all three have overarching robotics initiatives that lay out long-term roadmaps for making robotics technology the next driver of economic development.

Fortunately, the new National Robotics Initiative and Advanced Manufacturing Partnership are set to foster economy-boosting technologies that have already been targeted by the other research initiatives abroad. The NRI is focusing on co-robot technologies, which will generate a major push in getting robots in human environments, like homes, offices, and the roads. The AMP aims to leverage automation techniques to make American manufacturing competitive again.

It’s certainly a great start, and I agree with many others in robotics who feel that the emergence of some standards and common platforms, along with falling robot component prices, are paving the way for more and more private R&D and commercial products. The next few years should be interesting indeed.