8 places to allocate $1B in U.S. robotics infrastructure

There are some smart people involved in robotics. Throughout the United States go to any University and most high schools and you’re likely to find some sort of tinkering, coding, soldering and controlling some sort of robotics contraption.

What’s happening is that products like the Arduino and Raspberry Pi have opened up access to low-cost tiny computers, leagues of students have spun up around robotics competitions and it’s finally become somewhat accessible to prototype new ideas.

Which is great because robotics represents a  massive wave of fun, breakthroughs and revenue. Combined with Artificial Intelligence and a whole connected world robots educate, entertain and help us in lots of ways.

But how do you make money in robotics and what’s really needed to win in the industry. 

Entrepreneur Mark Cuban recently suggested to President-elect Donald Trump to consider spending $1B of his proposed $1Trillion infrastructure budget towards robotics. As a founder of a robotics company I of course think that’s a great idea.

However I also really think Mr. Cuban has a point. Let’s think about what infrastructure really means in this coming century. In a sense robotics infrastructure can be education and common tools as much as it is factories and roads.

I do think robotics represent an economic and scientific opportunity that will dwarf the Internet industry.

With successes and failures during both ‘booms’ for nothing else I’ve earned a unique perspective. What I see in robotics is a tremendous blossoming of innovation. Maker spaces and low-cost access and old engineers teaching young engineers. It’s great. But what I don’t see are lots of people making lots of money with truly advanced, easy-to-use robots. I see kids on phones controlling toys and I see very expensive research robots. I don’t see true robots being successfully sold into homes.

The reason is they don’t yet exist. Not from China. Not from Europe. Not from Russia. And definitely not from the United States. Both from a technological  (power, CPU, intelligence) and from a consumer perspective (easy, truly useful) they aren’t quite there yet. Which is great. It means there’s still time for leaders to emerge. And there are some leaders. Softbank. iRobot. Sphero. These are all organizations that are already winning in their markets.  And that doesn’t include medical or industrial robotics which are just massive areas for cost savings and new breakthroughs.

8 areas to spend $1B in Robotics Infrastructure

1. K-12 Education: There is a big push already for STEM and to implement things like Design Thinking and robotics clubs into schools. But it’s focused in affluent areas and there are still lots of barriers.  And frankly much of it misses entrepreneurship and product development which is what we need. The teachers and administrators need people not just money and hardware. It’s hard to create and implement new programs particularly in areas where there isn’t sufficient training.

Let’s first increase access and make sure everyone everywhere can get a hold of the basic building blocks of robotics and machine learning. At the same time teach the basics of Linux including networks and network security.

We’ve found Public Libraries to be great hubs because  they open and somewhat more informal areas for communities but they aren’t staffed to implement robotics innovation either. They can buy the materials but it takes people who know robotics to teach robotics.

2. Entrepreneurs, Artists AND Engineers: The wheels, beeping, sensing and thinking isn’t what makes a robot a robot. It’s the character. It’s how we feel about the robot which is important. That on top of usability and customer-driven product development is what is needed most. Engineers tend to try to solve the most complex problem, not the customer problem and more creative people tend to not think of themselves as hardware engineers.

3. Work WITH China:  I’m not a politician nor do I understand totally all aspects of international trade. But I’ve had the good fortune of working with some brilliant collaborators from China. So that’s my experience and perspective. Maybe we should look at our relationship with China as a huge asset.  How can we work together to innovate even faster. The Chinese has been perfecting their infrastructure for 5,000 years and it’s efficient and full of talent.

How can this relationship be improved and optimized for profits, the environment, and in a way that benefits the employees and shareholders of all parties?

4. Light manufacturing: Ok so you have a product that is working. A successful Kickstarter…pilot customers and more waiting. But you don’t yet have thousands of orders. How do you make leap from maker space idea to the shelves of Target? When they say hardware is hard this is what they are referring to. This is a gap that is hard to cross without a significant highly speculative capital outlay.

The truth is there are quite a few steps and phases in between prototype and mass market and this is a huge opportunity for innovation.  Laser cutting, 3D printing, assembly and packaging. Hardware startups require places they can solder. Try to find a CoWorking space in your town where you can set-up an assembly and soldering line.  If you think about it this is a major barrier that didn’t exist during the dot com boom.

5. Intellectual Capital: As and Global IP Champion Recipient and someone who has several patents and trademarks I can say this process we have in this country is amazing. But it needs to be smoothed out. And I have zero confidence a small U.S. company or individual can hope to protect IP overseas let alone here against the Internet not to mention big companies with teams of lawyers.

Let’s simplify IP management globally and make this a bargaining chip with other countries.

Stealing someone’s concept and then using legal power or international borders to profit from it should be illegal and immoral. How can we open up but also monetize the market for IP sort of like the music industry. If Getty Images can scan and fine people who use images across the entire web we can as a planet figure out how to truly commoditize and open up intellectual capital.

6. Federal Funding for Small Organizations: Grants.gov and SAM are great online resources. And it’s amazing how many grant opportunities are out there. But to a small school, library or business getting a significant federal grant is hard. Not only are the applications very time consuming to an already busy staff, a smaller organization doesn’t have the research capacity that many grants require. And while research is important – the Universities are who drive many of the new truly breakthrough technologies – it’s the small organization who faces the end user or customer and who often needs the funding the most to move forward.

7. Collaborate so we can focus on the real work: This doesn’t mean copy each other. And it doesn’t mean there isn’t a competitive robotics industry. Just the opposite. It simply means lets share the components of our technologies which can be easily integrated.  Maybe a national standard for common basic robot controls and interconnectivity. Let’s open up time and resources to work on robot personalities and artificial intelligence. These algorithms and code sets and data models are what makes a robot valuable.

8. Fuel existing growth: There are some great organizations and companies already out there with some amazing products. Put in place a way for them to identify themselves and then fund and support the ones that will have the most impact. Empower local workforce and manufacturing task forces to map and help drive collective growth for their existing resources. Cut through some of the red tape and make it easier for governments to fund startups with budgets they already have.

So that’s 8 things we can start with to jump-start the robotics innovation here in the United States – an beyond.

-Jalali Hartman

Training the next generation of robotics engineers

ROBAUTO runs a variety of free robotics engineering workshops. Working with communities to design, test and bring to market robotics prototypes is part of our business.

During this process I get to meet a wide range of people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. And while everyone is different, they all have one thing in common – they are intrigued by robots and the prospect of earning a living in the robotics industry.

Linux_command-line._Bash._GNOME_Terminal._screenshot

Teachers, parents, librarians and students all want to know more and typically in most communities there are a variety of programs popping up from library maker spaces to competitive robotics leagues for kids (and parents).

The fact of the matter is technology is evolving and tomorrow’s engineers will need to have a firm grasp on the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics regardless of their career path.

Here are a few suggestions to get started in robotics:

1. Learn Command Line & Linux. Students don’t need to be master programmers by the time they are in college. In fact I sometimes question if engineers will actually code in the future or if most code modules will already exist. Regardless, I see far too many aspiring engineers not really understanding networks, devices, security and code sharing. This is the foundation of everything.

2. Unplug. Let’s not encourage kids to be stuck behind devices. Product design, personality development and light manufacturing are all important aspects of robotics. Half of my time is spent interacting with robots and groups and half is in the lab working on engineering.

3. Teach Electronics Organization. One of the difficult things about hardware is that now as an engineer you are dealing with 2 different working systems. The code needs to work but the hardware also needs to perform as expected. So many times during prototyping engineers encounter bugs that have to do with a loss of power through either a bad connection or a low battery. Bug free hardware comes from disciplined assembly.

It’s important to learn how to properly solder, organize wires, charge batteries, label and test electronic circuits. Teaching students to keep a clean, organized and safe work area is a good first step.

Look for globs of solder, precariously taped connections and the use of power tools on delicate circuit boards!

4. Teach Design Thinking. Today’s product development process involves more than ever solving customer problems. As engineers we want to solve the hardest problems. That is our nature. Let’s work to make design thinking based innovation a natural part of a young engineer’s thought process.

5. Keep it Fun and Casual. Robotics leagues are great. They teach teamwork and materials management and deadline based engineering. School is important, it teaches structure and is well-designed to educate. But let’s also make sure to keep robotics fun. Students want and need informal learning opportunities which allow them to just tinker.

It takes a village to raise a robot

BiBli is a new robot prototype which is designed to entertain and educate. It has been developed as part of a collaboration between big industry, educators and parents. Over the last 12 months many students, engineers, and other volunteers have worked towards a common goal: better understand autism.

We have a long way to go still but we’re making great progress towards a low-cost, durable robotic solution for autism.

The prototype allows users to interact in a group setting in the role of a robot and is currently being tested at the Longmont Library in Longmont, Colorado. BiBli will be commercially available in 2016 and a portion of the proceeds will go to benefit autism research in schools and libraries.

BiBli

Raspberry Pi and Sound

We’re running a modified version of Ubuntu (one-os) instead of raspbian on our Pi and one of the main things we want to do is get sound to flow back and forth between mic and speaker. We have found that getting sound to work at different volumes and networks and mic-speaker combinations can be tricky to get to work. It’s helpful to understand what is going on.

As a note remember that some monitors and projectors pull audio and video through the HDMI cable. This may be impacting the audio settings on your Pi.

First, let’s do a test with your audio. Start by refreshing all of your connected audio.

sudo alsa force-unload
sudo alsa force-reload

then:

sudo arecord test.wav
sudo aplay test.wav

If the audio levels aren’t correct or if you are getting scratchy audio you may need to restart the Pi or search the available commands for alsa to set the correct input and output devices for your Pi. If you have tried multiple speakers and mics and USB connections there is a pretty good chance you’ve restarted the Pi and set the default input or output to the wrong device.

Finally, alsamixer is a great visual tool to adjust mic and speaker levels.

sudo apt-get install alsa-utils
sudo apt-get install alsamixer
alsamixer

Tech petting zoo and some great inventions

We had a great time this Saturday that the Longmont Library. There are some fantastic inventions brewing including a Linux-based “Evil Eye” personal media center and camera system, a self-driving car/sonar technology and our first test of ‘dronevertising’.

Dronevertising: We tried to tape this banner to our drone but found it caused issues with the aerodynamics.
Dronevertising: We tried to tape this banner to our drone but found it caused issues with the aerodynamics.
Sonar: The basics of a self-driving robot or vehicle.
Sonar: The basics of a self-driving robot or vehicle.
Streaming video via Linux! Great job.
Streaming video via Linux! Great job.

Robotics innovation is everywhere

r2d2
We’ve been working lately with the team at the Longmont (Colorado) Public Library to create an program that enables the local community to create new devices and robots for use in making the library more accessible.

It’s part of an overall project to make the library more open to individuals and their families on the autism spectrum. We’re helping to guide a project to create a robot that will reside in the library to assist patrons and we hope to create a sustainable model for community-driven robotics innovation in the process.

Why can’t a middle school student invent a new viable product? What about a parent of the student? Certainly the resources for desktop product development are readily available, and marketing can be as easy as a thoughtful Kickstarter video.

Innovation starts with an idea and in the case of robotics we’re now able to inexpensively create prototypes because of the influx in new low-cost hardware.

The expense in creating and test marketing a new product has gone down significantly and so the market will soon be flooded with an influx of new devices.

But what is missing is the the support and resources to bring these ideas to market. There are probably 100 weekend hardware developers (with prototypes) for every one that will have the ability to bring it to market.

The fact of the matter is that a creative engineer doesn’t always make the best entrepreneur. There is much more to innovation than just the technology.

ROBAUTO is hoping to lend our experience in commercial technology productization to design, build and test new innovations in electronics and robotics. We want to help make robots for the people – by the people.

Because in a connected, collaborative society with many challenges, we need to be looking for innovation everywhere. It’s not just happening in corporate labs and Universities.

The solutions to our most pressing problems (like healthcare and education for example) are likely to come from the collective and we’re excited to be a part of that transformation in innovation.

The robots are coming and innovation is happening everywhere.

It’s alive

We’re still working with the autism industry to determine the optimal features of the first autism robot. We do know it will use light and sound – here our device “comes alive” with it’s own heart beat.

Wiring up our test board (Arduino Uno) for light and sound.
Wiring up our test board (Arduino Uno) for light and sound.

Design your dream robot

During this weeks Pine Castle robotics club we asked everyone to design their ‘dream robot’. Some of these aspiring robotics engineers are not able to even speak but their voices were heard loud and clear. Robots should have faces and robots that look like animals are very cool. We even got stumped by one engineers questions about how optical sensors work. We had to smile when another told me they were “Very proud” of Buzz Lightyear and all he has accomplished. Robots are people too!

Note that this designer chose the use of animals and a known robot. Also, he was very interested in the total voltage required.
Note that this designer chose the use of animals and a known robot. Also, he was very interested in the total voltage required.
The majority of the 20+ designs included a face and arms and legs.
The majority of the 20+ designs included a face and arms and legs.