Fact: Last week’s Automatica 2008, the big international robotics and automation trade-show, had “over 30,000 trade visitors from around 90 countries,” visiting 900 exhibitors’ booths, according to the conference wrap-up.
Analysis: When I spoke recently at an IARPA conference in Orlando, and was asked to give a glimpse into Microsoft’s vision of R&D trends, one of the possibly surprising areas I highlighted was robotics. We’re making a major push in that area, for reasons that might not be intuitive based on an old-fashioned impression of what Microsoft offers in the government realm. More on the intelligence community’s potential use below.
If you missed Automatica this year, as I did, tough luck – it’s only held every two years, so we’ll have to wait until June 2010. The trade-show combines old-school automation and new-wave robotics: “assembly and handling technology, robotics, machine vision and associated technologies, [in] the very first international event that brings together all branches of the robotics and automation industry under the same roof in a single event,” according to the agenda. And the EU took the occasion to announce a new policy to boost European robotics, doubling official EU investments between 2007 and 2010 with almost €400 million to support European robotics research. The EU plans to foster stronger links between academia and industry, and will fund “widespread experimentation by academic researchers and industry.”
The reality is, though, robotics advance is driven less by government top-down investment, and more by the ROI recognized by industry. An Economist article last week (“Nothing to Lose but Their Chains“) noted the bottom-line drivers in a report on Automatica:
“Robotic blobs, arms and devices that resemble spiders will pave the way. A lot more of these are coming to work in offices and homes, and some will do more than one thing… Four trends were on show: robots are rapidly becoming more responsive, cheaper, simpler to program, and safer.”
I’m doubly upset I missed Automatica because the event was in Munich this year, one of my favorite cities, which is apparently a central hub of Europe’s robotics industry. Microsoft has an R&D center in Germany and if I had known earlier about Automatica I probably could have contrived a trip to cover it.
Microsoft was not an exhibitor at Automatica this year, but that may change in the next go-round. The change is best described by none other than Bill Gates himself, who wrote the cover story in Scientific American’s December 2006 issue (“A Robot in Every Home: The leader of the PC revolution predicts that the next hot field will be robotics“). He described the state of play then: “The challenges facing the robotics industry are similar to those we tackled in computing three decades ago. Robotics companies have no standard operating software that could allow popular application programs to run in a variety of devices. The standardization of robotic processors and other hardware is limited, and very little of the programming code used in one machine can be applied to another. Whenever somebody wants to build a new robot, they usually have to start from square one.”
We’ve begun to address those challenges: check here for the latest release of free downloads of Microsoft Robotics Studio (MSRS), and a more robust Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio 2008, software development kits which simplify the creation of robotic applications using a wide range of programming languages (amateur to complex). The SDK includes the Visual Simulation Environment, a cool simulation tool that lets robot builders test their applications in a 3D virtual environment before trying them out in the real world. There are great tutorials and lots of information to spark robotics innovation.
Adoption of Robotics Platforms
Gates described the goal with these SDK’s as a parallel to what Microsoft did in its earliest years with BASIC and MS-DOS: “to create an affordable, open platform that allows robot developers to readily integrate hardware and software into their designs.” You can check out Bill’s enthusiasm for MSRS in a Q&A session, podcast and video interview with Scientific American Online earlier this year.
There’s been some controversy. Gregory Dudek is a prominent blogger on robotics, and professor at the McGill Research Center for Intelligent Machines; he and some others greeted the introduction of the MSRS skeptically at first in 2007, worrying (wrongly) that it would drive out independent platforms and efforts. See here for a very interesting early post, and note in the comments that Microsoft’s Tandy Trower (daddy of MSRS) responds with some thoughtful input. Well, Dudek seems to have come around and is now actively using MSRS for his own projects on underwater and walking robot systems, winning a Microsoft Human Robot Interaction Award in the process for his Aqua robotic vehicle.
There’s a lot of commercial activity using this new platform, with uses as diverse as MySpace (network modeling simulation) and Tyco (facility access modeling). But my Institute is interested in government use (see Information Week story here).
Right off the bat, as far as the government & public sector goes, there’s obvious utility in the education space. Microsoft Research is a sponsor of the Institute for Personal Robots in Education (IPRE), which applies and evaluates robots as a context for computer science education, a joint effort between the Georgia Tech and Bryn Mawr College’s Computer Science Department. (Their blog had a great compilation of reaction to the Gates article.) Microsoft also works with education efforts like the Arizona State Robotics Camp for high school students.
Microsoft is also sponsoring work on disaster response with the University of Massachusetts Robotics Lab. And there’s tremendous public-sector use for robotics in health-care: check out the enGadget video of French robotics company Robosoft’s newest service robot designed to help the elderly and disabled, a “24-hour monitoring bot, including daily reminders, remote teleconferencing abilities, scaring off of house pets, and alerts if the patient falls or is in trouble.” It was designed virtually in MSRS and uses the software for control.
Intelligence Analysts and Robotics
When I spoke to IARPA’s “Incisive Analysis” conference in May, the focus was on better technologies for analyst use. For example, MSRS allows the use of simulated hardware, physical entities, and included 3D terrain, so the robotics problem space is actually quite relevant to many problems in “an intelligent Intelligence Enterprise.” Both at their core are about services and orchestrations. Both share the need to be able to scale both up and down. Robotics simulation allows easy scenarios that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to provide to a broad audience, e.g.:
- a geosynchronous orbit-plane populated by multiple vehicles;
- a city destroyed by a nuclear device or earthquake;
- any indoor facility populated by robotic avatars.
I also pointed out to the IARPA conference that, as a commercial and user-friendly parallel to the famous DARPA Grand Challenge Race for real robot vehicles, Microsoft has launched RoboChamps, a cool simulated robotics league open to academics, hobbyists, and developers from around the world. RoboChamps is built on top of Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio 2008 using the immersive 3D simulation environments, and the best simulated robot teams can actually win real robots as prizes. It’s wild! An IARPA analogue focusing on analytic uses might be interesting…
If you’re interested in wider reading on robotics, for a fairly comprehensive list of resources that will keep you busy for a while check out the Future of Engineering blog’s “Future of Robotics – Robots Uses, Trends, Applications” from March 2008, highly recommended. And the IPRE site is a great central resource for links on robotics news and developments.
Oh – and if you’re in the DC Beltway area and want to get elbow-deep in this stuff, check out the Meetup group that’s formed for robotics enthusiasts.
This moment in robotics really does have the spark of the very early days in personal computing software; watch this video of those days, with Jobs and Wozniak and Gates and the like, and you’ll get the comparison.
Filed under: Government, innovation, Intelligence, Microsoft, R&D, Society, Technology Tagged: | 3D, Arizona State University, ASU, Automatica, Automatica 2008, automation, BASIC, Bill Gates, Bryn Mawr, computer, DARPA, EC, Economist, enGadget, EU, Europe, Georgia Tech, Government, Gregory Dudek, hardware, IARPA, industry, information week, Intelligence, Intelligence Community, IPRE, McGill University, Microsoft, Microsoft Research, Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio, Microsoft Robotics Studio, modeling and simulation, MS-DOS, MSRS, MySpace, R&D, RoboChamps, Robosoft, robot, robotics, robots, ROI, Scientific American, simulation, Society, software, software development, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Tandy Trower, tech, tecnology, Tyco, University of Massachusetts, virtual, virtual worlds