Living in the robotic age

Federal government-wide National Robotics Initiative (NRI) marks five years of multi-agency effort to accelerate the research, development and use of robots that work beside or cooperatively with people.

Robots are about to transform how we live and work. Decades of federally-supported science and engineering research enabled us to reach this point.

The idea of universal robots has been around for almost a century, but it is only in the last few years that robots of all kinds have begun to enter our day-to-day lives, acting in close proximity to people.

Self-driving cars have driven more than 1.5 million miles; robotic surgical tools have assisted physicians in more than 1.75 million procedures; and personal and domestic robots are owned by more than 14 million consumers worldwide — all predicated on fundamental research supported by the U.S. government.

The multibillion-dollar global market for robotics, dominated for decades by industrial uses, is beginning to see a shift toward new consumer and workplace applications as robots are increasingly used in homes, hospitals, on farms and even in space. The number of cooperative robots, or co-robots, that work beside and with humans will only grow in the coming years.

For more than four decades, researchers — many of them funded by the federal government — have explored how to help machines interpret their environment and humans’ instructions so they may operate safely and reliably alongside people. Human actions that seem intuitive — from how to grasp and set things down to how to traverse uneven ground — presented significant challenges for machines.

Videos from the MIT AI Film Archive show some of the early history of robotics research.

Dozens of basic research breakthroughs in areas ranging from sensing and cognition to power and mobility were required for researchers to develop sufficiently capable and robust robots to perform tasks in the unstructured environment of the real world.

Some of these breakthroughs were intended for robotics, but others — in algorithms, materials and systems research — were for more general purposes and enabled capabilities we never expected, from robotic muscles to machines small enough to be ingested.

The combination of all these research advances has brought us to a point where many in the robotics and business communities anticipate rapid advances that can be applied to a range of new problems and environments, allowing humans and robots to work even more collaboratively and synergistically.

President Obama announcing the National Robotics Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center on June 24, 2011. (Credit: Carnegie Mellon University)

In 2011, President Obama announced the National Robotics Initiative (NRI) — a multi-agency collaboration among the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the National Institutes for Health (NIH), and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture — to accelerate the development of next-generation robots that can solve problems in areas of national priority, including manufacturing, sustainable agriculture, space and undersea exploration, health, transportation, personal and homeland security, and disaster resiliency and sustainable infrastructure. The Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Energy (DOE) joined the initiative in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

The long-term vision of the NRI is to integrate co-robots safely in our everyday lives so that they can help us at work and at home, assisting with difficult or dangerous tasks, from construction to demolition, and supplementing human speed and vision.

Then and now, the focus has also been on developing robots that can help improve our economy. As the President said in his speech announcing the initiative, “As futuristic, and let’s face it, as cool as some of this stuff is … this partnership is about new cutting-edge ideas to create new jobs, spark new breakthroughs and reinvigorate American manufacturing today.”

Through the NRI, NSF and federal agency partners have funded more than 230 projects in 33 states, with an investment totaling more than $135 million. These projects have led to robots that can inspect bridges, monitor water quality and even aid in future space missions.

The National Robotics Initiative supports Carnegie Mellon University robotics researchers studying how to use drones to monitor infrastructure. (Credit: CMU)

They have led to the development of wearable robotic devices that improve the quality of life for people with disabilities and protect our nation’s workforce from harm, whether from hazardous materials or repetitive injury. And they have advanced the state of the art in autonomous vehicles, catalyzed widespread interests in soft robotics, and jump-started efforts to develop robots for tutoring and educational development.

Ekso Bionics, supported by NRI, has developed robotic exoskeletons for use by individuals who have had strokes or spinal cord injuries. (Credit: Ekso Bionics)

Perhaps most importantly, NRI brought together disparate research communities — catalyzing new collaborations and advances — and inspired scientists working on fundamental research questions to consider their work in the context of specific domains such as agriculture, health, space, defense and hazard reduction.

On June 9th, the Congressional Robotics Caucus hosted an event in Washington, D.C., at which leading thinkers from industry, academia and government discussed the advances of the last five years, and research teams demonstrated today’s cutting-edge robotics designs, from coordinated robot swarms to exoskeletons that can help paralyzed people walk.

Jnaneshwar Das from the GRASP Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania exhibited robotic systems that can improve the efficiency and yield of farm operations at a Congressional Robotics Caucus-sponsored event.

The progress over the last five years has been astonishing, but it’s only a glimpse of what can be accomplished through this collaboration.

The robotics research community is currently hard at work developing a roadmap that outlines the research still needed to create robots that can work safety and efficiently with people for a variety of uses — assisting blind travelers, helping autistic children learn, letting the elderly remain in their homes — while also enabling robots to work in places where humans can’t go, whether it’s into precarious rubble after a disaster, the depths of our seas, or even the distant parts of our galaxy.

The Baxter robot hands off a cable to a human collaborator — an example of a co-robot in action. (Credit: Aaron Bestick, UC Berkeley)

With coordinated federal effort, the National Robotics Initiative has charted a path forward for the development of collaborative robots, one in which we can interact safely and naturally with robots as part of our everyday lives. Continuing investment will allow the brightest minds in robotics to tap novel research opportunities and explore new avenues for tomorrow’s co-robots, increasing the nation’s economic competitiveness and enhancing our quality of life.

Lynne Parker, National Science Foundation

Robert Ambrose, NASA

Grace Peng, National Institutes of Health

Daniel Schmoldt, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Reza Ghanadan, U.S. Department of Defense

Rodrigo Rimando, U.S. Department of Energy

Terah Lyons, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President