October 14, 2014      

RoboBusiness 2014, celebrating its 10th year as the leading business development event for the global robotics industry, kicked off in style last night as the New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center at the University of Massachusetts Lowell hosted an intimate crowd of roboticists for a two-hour reception.

The exclusive event, put on by the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council (MassTLC), provided RoboBusiness attendees a chance to tour the NERVE Center, network with exhibitors and see demos from local robotics companies, including iRobot, Rethink Robotics and ReWalk.

But the overall theme of the event was loud and clear to the international audience: the robotics ecosystem in Massachusetts is strong, and it’s only going to get stronger. When the NERVE Center opened in February 2013, it was one of only three NIST Standard test facilities in the nation.

But as the industry continues to grow, the need for more testing has also expanded. That lead to the opening of Joint Base Cape Cod in Massachusetts, which is one of six test sites across the country designated by the Federal Aviation Administration to develop ways to safely integrate drones into the nation’s airspace.

Gene Laureano, 51, has been paralyzed from the waist down since 2001 when he fell 20 feet from a ladder while working as a subcontractor on a welding project in Manhattan. He attended the RoboBusiness 2014 NERVE Center Reception with the assistance of a ReWalk exoskeleton.

And there was talk at the RoboBusiness NERVE Reception of another potential Massachusetts test facility that could tie everything together: the Devens InterOperability Playground (IOP). Devens, MA is a 4,400-acre self-contained community (population 300) with land in the towns of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley in Central Massachusetts. It’s run by MassDevelopment, and it’s the successor to the Fort Devens military camp that was open from 1917-1996.

The Devens IOP would be a “robotic city” of sorts where different types of robots — UAVs, AGVs, self-driving vehicles, semi-autonomous trucks, etc – are tested to see how they work together. According to several members of MassTLC, which is helping lead the push for the Devens IOP, the idea is in the works, but it’s still very conceptual.

“We thought the residents [of Devens] would be hesitant, but they loved it,” says Joyce Sidopoulos, cluster manager, Mass TLC. “They kept asking us where they could sign up.”

Dr. Holly Yanco, a professor of computer science at the UMass Lowell and director of the NERVE Center, says the Devens IOP could be a valuable link in the testing chain in Massachusetts. She explains that robots could first be tested for safety measures at the NERVE Center, go down for field testing at Joint Base Cape Cod — if it’s a drone — and then go to the Devens IOP for further interoperability testing.

Yanco says they’re eyeing a June 2015 kickoff, so stay tuned.

Robotics incubator

Another initiative that will be introduced shortly is called Mass Robotics, an incubator in Cambridge, MA developed by Draper Laboratory and Vecna that wants to “make Massachusetts the thriving hub of robotics, automation, and autonomous vehicles for the world.”

The incubator will mentor robotics startups in all aspects of their business, all the way from concept to product launch, in an effort to stimulate economic growth of the robotics technology base in the state.

The goal is to “create a productive and collaborative robotic technologies marketplace where members come together to learn, create, and solve problems.”

One of the consensus problems among NERVE Reception staff and attendees is that too many students from top robotics programs in Massachusetts don’t stay long after graduation. They receive their diplomas and bolt for Silicon Valley “in hopes of creating a startup that gets bought by Google.”

“There are really strong robotics companies in Massachusetts, but we need more of them,” says Yanco.

“Massachusetts keeps losing talent to California and other states,” says Sidopoulos. “We need to stop that. We need more robotics companies to start here and make it to the next level here, become larger and employ more people.”

Massachusetts is home to 150 robotics companies serving 11 markets, one of three NIST facilities in the nation, the Joint Base Cape Cod drone testing facility, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for testing autonomous underwater vehicles and potentially the Devens IOP.

As Tom Hopcroft, president and CEO of MassTLC put it, “Massachusetts is the best place to start and grow your robotics company.” If only Massachusetts could get more of the brilliant minds in robotics to stay, just think of how much better it could be.