December 22, 2009      

Since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was passed earlier this year, bailouts of the banking and automotive industries, as well as funding of infrastructure work, have received a lot of publicity. With less fanfare, the stimulus funds are also being distributed to a number of early-stage technology development programs, especially in robotics.

One high-profile example is an award to The Droid Works Inc. Since iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner announced her new Massachusetts-based company last February, the stealthy Droid Works has been the topic of much speculation. The $100,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase 1 grant awarded to the company in June finally sheds some light on its work. The award is funded under ARRA and comes through the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The grant, which expires at the end of 2009, funds a six-month research project focused on navigation and control technologies for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in indoor environments. Unlike their larger military counterparts such as the Predator drone, indoor UAVs are considerably smaller and have applications in security and emergency response. They also face the additional technological challenge of being designed for safe operation near humans.

SBIRs have been critical to the success of many early-stage robotics companies, so the benefit to The Droid Works is clear. The good news for other robotics start-ups is that this investment comes under the aegis of ARRA and demonstrates a confidence from the U.S. government in the important role robotics has in economic recovery. Indeed, while The Droid Works is the highest profile example of stimulus funding for robotics, the other awards show investment in an array of robotic technologies applicable to many industries.

In the healthcare field, Lehigh University in Pennsylvania received nearly $500,000 under ARRA to develop autonomous wheelchairs for urban environments; other laboratories received funding for elder care robots and infant mobility aids. Similarly, Arizona State, Harvard, and Columbia universities were awarded a collaborative grant to research adaptive robotic grasping technologies, while Barrett Technology Inc., another Massachusetts company, won $100,000 for work on its precision force-controlled robotic arms. Robotic arms and grasping technologies have applications in a variety of fields, including medicine, manufacturing, and personal robots. A number of research organizations even received grants to use unmanned systems to profile air and ocean conditions in climate change studies. In all, the stimulus package provides more than $5 million for robotics research.

The millions of dollars of ARRA funds directed to robotics research and development demonstrate a commitment to 21st century technology and business models. The grants will undoubtedly create jobs as they are also meant to do, but more important, the long-term investment is critical for pushing these new technologies out of the laboratory and into the open market while creating new companies that will expand the robotics industry and the U.S. economy.