Why Was President Obama Talking About Robotics and Unmanned Systems?

By Michael Toscano posted 02-09-2011 08:24

On 24 June, 2011, I had the privilege to travel to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., to attend President Barack Obama’s announcement regarding the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) and the National Robotics Initiative (NRI). My personal thanks to Bill Thomasmeyer, executive director of the Robotics Technology Consortium, for facilitating this invitation.

Following a tour of CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center, President Obama articulated the importance of manufacturing robotics and unmanned systems technology. He said this cutting-edge technology will drastically increase manufacturing productivity and help return jobs to the United States that were lost overseas. To have a robust and healthy economy, the president said the country needs a robust and growing manufacturing sector. He went on to say that about a third of manufacturing jobs in the United States have vanished over the past 13 years.

For the video of President Obama’s speech, go to http://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/video/2011/06/24/renaissance-american-manufacturing.

AMP is a collection of some of the most advanced engineering universities and some of the most innovative manufacturers in the United States. AMP will invest more than $500 million in manufacturing and emerging technologies, with $70 million slated specifically for NRI, which will focus on the development of robotics and unmanned systems technologies. A White House press release says, “These investments will help create the next generation of robots that will work closely with human operators — allowing new ability for factory workers, healthcare providers, soldiers, surgeons and astronauts to carry out key hard-to-do tasks.”

I personally know a successful company embracing the art of manufacturing robotics.  Drew Greenblatt is the CEO of Marlin Steel Wire, a Baltimore-based steel wire basket manufacturing company. In 1998, his fledging business employed 18 people earning approximately $6 per hour each. In 2002, facing stiff competition from cheap, foreign labor, Greenblatt invested in robotics. What seemed like a risky decision at the time has paid huge dividends. Greenblatt’s company is now thriving; revenues have increased sixfold, salaries have jumped to $24 per hour and he recently hired 12 new workers. While national unemployment hovers above 9 percent, Marlin Steel Wire has posted four new positions this year. Perhaps most significant of all, Greenblatt is actually exporting his wire baskets to China and 34 other countries. This is the power of manufacturing robotics.

Concurrent with AMP was Obama’s announcement of NRI, which provides collaboration among academic, industry, non-profit, and other organizations to establish better linkages between fundamental science and technology development, deployment and use. This program will develop the next generation of robotics to extend the functionality of a human being's hands, eyes, and ears to allow it to perform dirty, dangerous, difficult, and dull operations from a safe distance.

NRI’s goal is to accelerate the development and use of robots in the United States that work alongside or cooperate with people. Innovative robotics research and applications emphasizing the realization of such co-robots acting in direct support of and in a symbiotic relationship with human partners is supported by multiple agencies of the federal government including the National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The federal government has released a Broad Agency Announcement soliciting innovative proposals. To review the BAA, go to http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=503641&org=CISE.

To get a more detailed explanation of the NRI and the $70 million dollar BAA, come to AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems North America 2011 on Wednesday, 17 Aug. Thomas Kalil from the Office of Science and Technology Policy will chair a panel discussion along with the four participating organizations to describe the purpose of NRI and the specifics of the open BAA.

Our future is strongly influenced by the usage of robotics and unmanned systems. To witness this potential firsthand, be sure to attend the rest of the show as well, from 16 -19 Aug. at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. I look forward to seeing you there.