July 14, 2013      

Robotics R&D is alive and well in the Netherlands, but as a high-tech supply chain reaches critical mass in the southern Brainport region, supporting robotics implementation and locking in major funding are of the utmost importance to commercial sustainability.

Strategic Agenda

Right now, High Tech Systems & Materials (HTSM), Chemical Engineering & Chemistry, and Agrofood are the sectors driving 68 percent of all private spending on R&D and contributing almost half of all Dutch exports.

Driving investments and lobbying efforts to support the HTSM industry and, by default, Dutch robotics, is Holland High Tech, which reports investments of over $2.6 billion in HTSM R&D per year.

It is unclear exactly how much the Dutch government has invested in robotics research, since those investments are not plainly parceled. What we do know is that the Dutch Cabinet wants to make the Netherlands’ economy one of the top five economies in the world, and Brainport 2020, a proposed economic strategy to grow the country’s mechatronics capital, lays out a plan that will ultimately benefit the robotics research underway there.

Brainport 2020 largely corresponds with Europe 2020 and targets an over $1 billion increase in public and private R&D investments by 2020 to jumpstart new high-tech clusters. Smart mobility, smart materials, homecare, industrial design, solar energy and agrofood are the areas pinpointed for top funding, each of which sees robotics as a centerpiece of critical development.

Since 2010, the RoboNed organization, one of 15 ICT Innovation platforms established by the government’s ICT Regie, has played a pivotal role in defining how Dutch robotics fits into this high-tech renaissance. It was RoboNed that produced the Dutch Robotics Strategic Agenda (similar in scope to the U.S. Robotics Roadmap) as a means of steering the Dutch robotics industry to unite R&D, real market needs and the country’s larger political agenda.

Its roadmap concludes that, while the region needs to fill a deficit of engineers, an abundance of SMEs involved in the agriculture and medical fields will propel the Netherlands towards a profitable position within the service robotics market. The country?s close links to Europe have also made the Netherlands a desirable collaborator on EU projects related to those industries under the Seventh Framework. Participation in these programs now accounts for about $61 million annually with a goal to more than double by 2020.

The organization’s next phase draws a laser-like focus onto the region’s robotics startups in order to redouble implementation efforts.

The Killer App

In pursuit of widespread implementation, the Dutch robotics community joins that of other nations in pursuit of the next killer application. Innovation leader Phillips has already invested significant R&D in domestic robotics with the release of a series of robotic vacuum cleaners, but Dr. Maarten Steinbuch, a professor in Systems and Control and head of the Control Systems Technology group of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Eindhoven University of Technology, sees greater potential in the food processing industry.

His research group is working with Marel, who recently acquired Stork Poultry, to develop a process that incorporates CT scanning and machine vision to cut meat with a higher yield. According to Steinbuch, the method of injecting material into pieces of meat presents yet another robotics challenge worth investigating, as the inconsistent shape of living tissue presents another variable component for the machinery.

Photo by Frederic Boisdron / Planet Robots

Agribotics, on the other hand, is being tackled from both ground and air, with headway being made at Wageningen University in UAV navigation and mapping for precision agriculture, as well as a series of projects to enable robotic harvesting and food packaging for a variety of plant, fruit and vegetable growers.

As a societal necessity, care (professional and domestic service robotics) and cure (medical and surgical robotics) will come, Dr. Steinbuch says. In the Netherlands, devotion to assisted living for the elderly and disabled retains a particularly strong focus in light of troubling demographic trends.

Companies like Focal Meditech, Assistive Innovations and De Koningh Medical Systems have already rolled out robotic devices designed to assist individuals with limited mobility with performing daily functions. It is widely accepted, however, that surgical robots, like that offered by companies like PRECEYES, will facilitate the transition from robots in hospitals to robots in homes by serving as the initial touchpoint between humans and robotic machinery.

Dutch roboticists are navigating all these areas of research with a characteristic combination of pragmatism and creativity. New ways to operate and implement robotic technologies are conceived in direct consultation with SME end users and always with a watchful eye on the development of enabling technologies from machine vision to battery production.

Where the Dutch excel is in their willingness to explore solutions that may disrupt existing industry restrictions and infrastructures. After all, implementing the Netherlands’ exceptional water-control system involved a complete restructuring of the landscape at one time. Entire farms were removed and then replaced on higher ground so that safeguards could function properly.

In this respect, the Dutch have already learned the lesson that technology and infrastructure must evolve to meet halfway. This kind of compromise has been a hard sell in the U.S., but if private and public funding fall into place in the Netherlands, the Dutch may just show us the way to mobilizing a robotics-driven industry with greater efficiency than we’ve seen anywhere else in the world.