When it comes to robotics innovation hotspots, Texas isn’t as well known as places like Silicon Valley or the Boston and Pittsburgh areas, but that fact hasn’t prevented an array of robotics industry players from sprouting roots in the Lone Star State.
Since the 1960s, when early robotics developers were lured to Texas by the promise of NASA and military contracts, as well as a rapidly growing technology community anchored by future semiconductor powerhouse Texas Instruments, the state has been home to an impressive array of robotics innovators. Today, supported by world-class universities, a strong commercial technology base and a business-friendly economic environment, Texas robot makers continue to pioneer new hardware and software technologies.
Lisa Givens, director of communications for the Texas Workforce Commission, the state agency charged with overseeing and providing workforce development services to both employers and job seekers, says that Texas fosters robotics innovation in various ways. She notes that that state supports companies with “a business-friendly climate, a skilled workforce and strategic partnerships with industry, academia and the public sector.” She adds that the state also offers “an effective commercialization process for products and technology supported by a highly efficient supply chain.”
Startups and Industry Leaders
KumoTek, a robotics design and manufacturing company located near Dallas, is a typical Texas-based robotics startup. The company, founded in 2004 by robotics industry spokesman Matthew Fisher, has become a major player in robotics-enabled interactive entertainment. The word “kumo,” incidentally, means “spider” in Japanese.
KumoTek’s consumer robotics group works closely with Asian robotics equipment manufacturers to develop high-end robot kits for both the hobby and educational markets. KumTek’s products tend to be both fund and instructional. A partnership with Japan’s Vstone Corp., for example, led to the development of the KT-X Bipedal Robot Kit, the first inexpensive bi-pedal robot platform offered in North America that can be controlled via a standard wireless gamepad controller.
KumoTek has assembled an impressive customer list over the past few years, including Intel, the U.S. Naval Academy, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Dartmouth College. The company also designs and builds interactive museum robots, such as ARTI (short for “artificial intelligence”), which is on permanent exhibit at the Intel Museum in Santa Clara, Calif.
KumoTek Robotics also develops advanced animatronics and interactive technologies for large-scale entertainment venues. The firm’s latest project, The Guardians of Time, aims to bring animatronic dinosaurs to life. The robotic creatures will directly interact with guests via real-time face detection and predator-like tracking behaviors.
Since 1986, Houston-based TRAClabs has developed robotic software that aims to mimic the way people think and act. Over the years, the company has developed code for various types of businesses as well as government organizations, including NASA.
Last September, TRACLabs signed a two-year, $2 million contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to design software for a disaster response robot. The software will be used for tasks such as driving vehicles, climbing ladders, using tools, opening doors, manipulating equipment, and clearing away rubble. While mostly autonomous, the robot will also have supervision from and interaction with a remote operator. TRACLabs is a partner with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the project.
Another important Texas-based robotics software innovator is Agile Planet, a company located in Austin that specializes in robot and motion control solutions as well as custom engineering services. Agile Planet says that its unified robot and motion control software platform offers the industry’s first and only true plug-n-play capability, greatly reducing development costs and providing a faster time-to-market for adopters.
Agile Planet has also developed theKinematix library, an intelligent robotic manipulation engine that the company claims can be easily integrated into industrial robots. The library is based on technology originally developed at the University of Texas at Austin. Kinematix, which lies at the heart of Agile Planet’s software and controller products, has over 1,000 users worldwide, the company says. The library was developed and funded during the course of projects Agile Planet has worked on over the years with NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), DARPA and other organizations.
C&D Skilled Robotics, a major manufacturer of gantry robots, selective compliant articulated robot arm (SCARA) systems, laser-guided vehicles (LGVs), and automatic truck loading system systems ATLSes), is based in Beaumont. Serving an array of Fortune 500 and large private enterprises, C&D designs and builds state of the art robotic material handling systems both in Beaumont and Schio, Italy, and Beaumont, Texas.
C&D claims that it meets the automation needs of thousands of customers in over forty countries. The company’s customer base spans a variety of industries, including food and beverages, pharmaceuticals, tire and rubber, paper, plastics, textile, agricultural and farming, glass and ceramics and more.
Numerous science and engineering colleges and universities, including the University of Texas at Austin, home to the Bill and Melinda Gates Computer Science Complex, and Texas A&M University, support the Texas robotics industry by providing companies with a steady supply of talented workers. Givens says that the state is committed to improving robotics education. “A $1 million statewide program to expand student participation in robotics education was recently funded by the Texas Workforce Commission,” she notes.
Many Texas schools also operate important robotics research facilities. The University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute (UTARI), for instance, conducts research in many different robotics areas, including educational, military and agricultural applications. Other research sub-areas include sensing, perception, mobility, manipulation, advanced human-machine interfaces, intelligent control, teleoperated and autonomous systems and advanced cooperative human-robot interaction. Last December, UTARI opened its new Assistive Robotics Lab, which will investigate ways of enabling robots and devices to assist people and improve human performance in daily activities. The facility will focus on populations with special needs, including people with physical disabilities and injuries as well as those who require rehabilitation and care management.
In College Station, the Land Air and Space Robotics (LASR) lab, operated by Texas A&M University’s aerospace engineering department, focuses on robots that either fly through the atmosphere or soar into space. The lab conducts research in robotic sensing and control with the goal of enhancing the fields of proximity operations, human-robot interaction, stereo vision, swarm robotics and autonomous aerial vehicles.
One of LASR’s current projects, being conducted in cooperation with NASA, aims to develop new a technology that enables the removal of space debris. The lab is testing sensing and control algorithms for such a mission on a guidance, navigation and control system that includes a sensor package, custom target recognition software and vehicle emulation capabilities.
The LASR GNC system (LGNC), designed to be attached to a debris capture vehicle, incorporates relative, vision-based measurements and data from an inertial measurement unit to estimate the variables necessary for successful proximity operations missions. Proximity operations experiments at LASR are conducted on the Holonomic Omni-directional Motion Emulation Robot (HOMER). HOMER is a Stewart Platform-style parallel robot that features six hydraulic jack-style actuators. The system provides a freedom of motion similar to the type available to aircraft simulators.
Search and Rescue
Texas A&M also operates the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR). The center’s mission is to improve disaster preparedness, prevention, response and recovery services through the development and adoption of robots and related technologies. CRASAR’s ultimate goal is to create a “community of practice” for rescue robots that motivates fundamental research, supports technology transfer and educates students, response professionals and the public.
As it works toward achieving its larger objectives, CRASAR is addressing current search and rescue needs by making a variety of small land, sea and air robots available to responders at no charge through its Roboticists Without Borders program. Robin R. Murphy, CRASAR’s director, believes that while robots are immensely useful rescue tools, they aren’t being used to their full potential. “Life saving activities are effectively over after three days, but robots aren’t being used on average until four days after the disaster–too late to make a difference,” Murphy said in a recent speech.