Employment InSightsIEEE-USA InFocus

Past the Automated Arms: Service and Personal Robotics Industry Takes Off

By David Pietrocola

Every week, robots are making 60,000 food deliveries to patients in 150 hospitals across the United States. A lovable robotic baby seal is transforming the lives of hundreds of individuals suffering from dementia in Denmark. For thousands of small business owners in manufacturing and assembly, a $20,000 robot is a welcome competitive edge, after years of offshoring. And a self-driving car that has logged 100,000 miles could be commercially available in five years.

This past fall, 400 robotics researchers, entrepreneurs, business managers, sales professionals, and analysts descended on a hotel in downtown Pittsburgh for the RoboBusiness Leadership Summit, a conference dedicated to robotics businesses across all industries. Its success showed that robotics technology is capable of turning into really great products and successful businesses today, and not just for military and assembly line applications. Of course, that also means a growing industry for thousands of IEEE members in software, hardware, battery technology, and control systems. The IEEE Robotics and Automation Society (RAS) and its members have been a critical piece to conducting the research and developing the technology to get us to this point.

In 2007, IEEE-USA helped form the bipartisan Congressional Robotics Caucus, where it currently serves on the caucus’ advisory committee along with RAS. Through this role, IEEE-USA has advanced the very pertinent policy issues of getting robots out in the field, and promoting a cohesive national strategy for robotics research and development.

But this growth and optimism has been a long time in the making. Specifically, here are a few reasons for excitement:

1)   Open platforms and systems integration

For a long time, most robotics researchers and developers created custom hardware, and/or software, for each new experiment or product, requiring a lot of upfront investment just to reinvent the wheel. Someone interested in building a remote telepresence robot needed to think about motor control, chassis design, sensor interfaces and signal conditioning, power, processing, communications, and user interfaces. That’s not the case anymore. Open source software such as Linux, the Robot Operating System (ROS) framework, OpenCV (computer vision) library, and Point Cloud Library (PCL) have contributed to a coalescence of practices that are speeding up system development and furthering scientific research at a fascinating rate. Readily available platforms and components like the Arduino microcontroller, Turtlebot mobile robot platform, Microsoft Kinect, PR2, Pioneer, and NAO robots are doing their part on the hardware side, allowing researchers to build on and validate each other’s results. ROS was a primary topic of discussion in at least three talks at RoboBusiness, while nearly every robot or manipulator arm in the showcase featured ROS compatibility. That didn’t exist only a few years ago.

2)   Workforce Development

For two decades, robotics competitions at all levels of education have inspired students to become engineers. Whether it’s FIRST, VEX, BEST, Botball, the Trinity fire-fighting contest, or the various events funded by professional societies like AUVSI and IEEE, we have a generation of competition graduates who are ambassadors for robotics technology with practical expectations. They are developers, researchers, and future adopters, and that cannot be undervalued. In terms of curriculum and institutionalization within the United States, we are furthering change with efforts like Project Lead the Way that, according to Robotics Education & Competition Foundation Chairman Joe Astroth at RoboBusiness, is serving 5,000 schools and 500,000 students. Three leading universities have robotics Ph.D. programs and dozens more have M.S. and B.S. degrees, which is not an easy task for schools that tend to think along departmental and disciplinary lines. As we move forward, this new workforce with unique talents will infuse existing products and technologies with robotic elements like computer vision and autonomous navigation. Additionally, they’ll be buoyed by the country’s renewed focus on entrepreneurship and maker culture, and follow dreams for new systems borne out of their competition events and formal studies.

3)   Unmanned systems success

The market for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) in defense and surveillance applications is incredibly strong. Not a week goes by without hearing a story of how a teleoperated robot on the ground saved a soldier’s or police officer’s life. These systems are delivering results (in addition to raising ethical and legal questions), and a growing ecosystem of component suppliers will continue to benefit commercial robotics applications. Furthermore, advancements in reliable communications and robust system construction will translate to better commercial products.

4) Social and Demographic changes

Several talks at RoboBusiness repeated the same demographic statistics and facts heard in a variety of forums:

  • Over 70 million 65 and older by 2030 in the U.S. alone.
  • Nursing home costs increasing 10% annually.
  • Half of working adults will become informal caregivers.

These numbers paint a picture of a crippled healthcare system without technological adoption that facilitates longer in-home living and more efficient patient care. In the U.S., Europe, and Japan, demographics are quickly becoming a driver for new businesses and products. For example, iRobot and InTouch Health demonstrated their new RP-VITA product, developed out of a partnership between the two companies. In fact, InTouch CEO Dr. Yulun Wang delivered his entire presentation through the telepresence robot with an impressive video quality through the hotel’s standard WiFi network. Off-site specialists can control the robot through an iPad or PC and simply click on patient locations on a map as the robot autonomously navigates to the bedside.

So that’s where we are right now, a lot of promising drivers and a small but growing number of successful businesses with increasing product adoption. While the technological challenges are immense but generally doable, we must not underestimate the systems problem ” the social, cultural, and policy dynamics that can easily hamper a product’s chances.

Consider the story portrayed by two back-to-back talks from Nordic countries: Adam Hagman from Sweden’s Robotdalen partnership, and Claus Risager from the Denmark Technological Institute. Robotdalen has created impressive partnerships between academia and industry to translate research into products and get them to the people who benefit most from functions such as augmented hand gripping. In both Sweden and Denmark the Bestic is a small robotic arm that helps users independently feed themselves, and it has been a huge success in transforming lives at the modest price tag of $4,000.

And then there is Paro, the cute robotic baby seal originally developed in Japan that has benefited hundreds of patients suffering from dementia across Denmark alone. Presenter Claus Risager noted that Denmark was one of the first to make a large purchase of the robots even as it didn’t quite catch on in Japan. Its healthcare system and culture have enabled the robots to serve as pet therapy for dementia patients, oftentimes calming tempers and soothing moods. Simple, reliable, and effective ” that’s where robotics products are going, and IEEE members are poised to make a significant impact.

David Pietrocola is a robotics engineer and founder of Robots in DC covering industry trends, robotics policy issues, and technical tutorials. He has developed several robotic systems, software, and artificial intelligence algorithms in industry and research settings, publishing several papers along the way. David earned a M.S. in Systems Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering with honors and Phi Beta Kappa from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. He is a member of IEEE, the IEEE-USA Intellectual Property Committee, and the IEEE-USA Research and Development Committee.

Robotics stories you may have missed from 2012



Amazon shocked the robotics world with its $775 million acquisition of Kiva Systems, maker of the automated warehouse logistics robots. It may not be a price we’ll see again any time soon, but the purchase signals a maturation of mobile robots that have become an integral part of business logistics.


With recent news in Washington considering the future of NASA, 2012 was a great year for the agency’s robotics program. First, Robonaut aboard the International Space Station began the year with an iconic handshake with the ISS commander. Since then, it has performed a variety of tasks in flipping switches, turning knobs, and grabbing handrails. b. Of course there was the “terrifying” Mars landing of the Curiosity rover in July. Armed with an arsenal of tools and laboratory equipment, Curiosity is turning out to be a successful robotic explorer. And just this week we learned that an autonomous wave glider robot from Liquid Robotics completed its one-year, 9000-mile Pacific voyage from California to Australia.


The Google self-driving car has racked up 300,000 miles on the road as California, Florida and Nevada (in 2011) passed legislation setting up the procedures and requirements that will be needed for commercial driverless products. Several others, including D.C., are reviewing bills. With car manufacturers now introducing advanced sensors and increasing autonomy features in upcoming models, the legislation is ahead of the technological curve for once.


Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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