August 29, 2016      

As countries around the world look to robotics to diversify their economies, some are devising national strategies. Others are encouraging the private sector to take the lead. In Israel’s case, a shift from security concerns to the desire to become a technology hub is guiding Israeli robotics.

Historically, Israel has been more concerned with its geopolitical situation than with adapting to the future. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates is holding competitions and setting government policies to grow a local robotics industry. Similarly, Taiwan is pursuing a blend of public and private-sector initiatives to be a new kind of robotics power in Asia.

Things are changing, as Israel works to become an advanced technology hub, with robotics and artificial intelligence playing a huge role.

“As a salient innovative nation, Israel must realize its potential in the various fields of robotics,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Just as we have become a leader in cybersecurity, we must also propel forward the robotics and automation industry in order to take a place at the forefront of the sector.”

Israeli robotics is taking off in several ways, one of which is in “selling” Israeli robotics expertise to solve the challenges other nations are facing.

Israeli robotics expertise on call

Israel is becoming an “on-demand” robotics power. The country has offered its research and development services and startups to parties that can then take the designs and use them elsewhere.

In 2012, the European Union unveiled a €20 million ($15.6 million) public-private project to create unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) that can stop what it calls “irregular migrants.” This involved multiple organizations, including Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. The project examined giving UGVs nonlethal weapons such as tear gas.

Israeli robotics expertise is helping with an EU project to develop a market-ready harvester.

Israel is cooperating with Belgium, the Netherlands, and Sweden in developing this robot for harvesting sweet peppers.

In March 2015, the EU once again looked to Israeli robotics. Under the Sweeper Program, academics from Ben-Gurion University south of Jerusalem were tapped to develop the first market-ready pepper-harvesting robot in the world.

In addition, Israel is a major player in the surgical robotics and exoskeleton markets.

Despite the failure of trials for StemCell Technologies Inc.’s spinal cord injury treatment, shares in the Vancouver, British Columbia-based company increased sixfold when it conducted a reverse merger with Yokneam, Israel-based Microbot Medical.

China, India also interested in Israeli robotics

Last December, the Israeli Robotics Association signed a deal with investors from China and the city of Guangzhou for $20 million. The objective is to have Israel develop robotic technology that China can take back to its factories to mass-produce robotic security guards, waiters, and more.

In February, Catalyst Private Equity and China Everbright Ltd. established a $200 million joint-venture fund to help bring Israeli technologies to the Chinese market.

India is also eyeing Israeli robotics. In March, 28 Israeli companies showcased their products at Defexpo India. Among the technologies at the military exhibition were robot systems and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) designed in Israel.

India’s Wipro Ltd. last week invested another $1.5 million in IntSights Cyber Intelligence. The Herzliya, Israel-based cybersecurity company tries to preempt cyberattacks. IntSights raised $1.8 million last October.

In July, the Times of India reported on continuing Israeli-Indian efforts to develop advanced weapons systems. But it noted that India was worried about the high costs involved with installing Israeli weapon systems on its naval vessels.

Could such worries prompt Israel to develop more frugal robotic capabilities so it can sell to the huge markets of the developing world?

More on Israeli Robotics and Global Partners:

Israeli robotics blazes a trail

Each country is solving different challenges to nurture its robotics industry. The approach for Israeli robotics has been to solve the challenges that other countries face. Whether it’s helping the EU, the U.S., China, or India, Israel has clearly identified a way to grow its influence.

As Israel continues on this path, one major challenge will emerge. As it pioneers robotic technologies for other countries, particularly military and security robots (which we’ll examine more in my next article), it will also implicitly carry responsibility for the actions of these robots.

If something goes wrong, like certain industrial robots killing human workers in China, all fingers will point at Israeli robotics as the culprit. Is Israel taking this into consideration as it sells its robotic capabilities to other nations?

In the meantime, Israel is pioneering a new kind of robotic power — one where its expertise and capabilities are tapped. In the process, Israel is creating an economic blueprint that doesn’t rely on manufacturing. What other countries or regions could follow the Israeli robotics model in the future?