Mass. emerging as robotics leader
The robots are here.
They’re flying overhead, swimming in the ocean, and scaling the walls. Some, in android-like form, are doppelgangers for “Star Wars” characters, but many are simply rolling boxes of bolts and wires that seemingly have minds of their own.
The toughest go to war; others can dance, and a few even talk. But most of them are doing the boring, laborious — or dangerous — chores that humans don’t want or should not have to do, such vacuuming, lifting heavy loads, and defusing bombs.
And many are either made or designed in Massachusetts.
The state has become ground zero for a revolution in robotics that involves companies such as iRobot Corp. in Bedford, best known for the Roomba vacuum cleaner; newcomers like Rethink Robotics in Boston, a maker of manufacturing robots; and universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, that are at the leading edge of the next generation in robotics.
And they are, quite literally, on land, at sea, and in the air.
“Massachusetts has shipped more robots than anywhere else in the world,” said Michael Gennert, head of robotics engineering at WPI, which began offering the country’s first undergraduate major in robotics in 2007. “It’s not just a bunch of crazy folks playing with robots. It’s a serious industry that’s arising here.”
The region has about 100 robotics companies and 35 research and development programs, working on robot projects for the military, law enforcement,hospitals, manufacturing facilities, oceanographers, scientists, and for consumers, according to a report that will be released Tuesday by the Mass Technology Leadership Council, a statewide industry group.
The report says that about 3,200 people work in robotics, and annual sales from these companies are approaching $2 billion.
In just the past four years, 11 new robotics companies have sprung up that are attracting investors. In the past five years, investors have poured about $209 million into the industry here.
The Mass Technology Leadership Council plans to release its report in conjunction with the opening of the 10,000- square-foot New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation Center at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The facility is part of the school’s $80 million Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center, which opened in October.
The robotics center will create the first comprehensive testing facility for the region’s robot makers. It will feature sand pits and splash pools to test robots in simulated conditions. It’s a bit like a skateboard park for robots, joked Holly Yanco, a computer science professor at UMass Lowell and director of the center.
“You want to be able to understand how your robots are going to work in different environments,” she said.
Having the center within a short drive of dozens of robotics companies may speed up the development cycle for companies that need to test their creations outside the lab. “It’ll give the industry in New England more power,” she said.
The growing robot economy can be attributed to the region’s computing brainpower at university labs as well as falling prices for components used to make to robots.
“All the building blocks are more readily available than they ever were,” said Marc Raibert, who left MIT about two decades ago to start Boston Dynamics, known for developing advanced robots for the military.
Among Boston Dynamic’s robots is the BigDog, a bulky animal-like bot that can lumber over rough terrain and carry 340 pounds, and the SandFlea, a small, fast-moving machine that can jump 30 feet in the air to place a camera in a remote location.
“Imagine jumping up into a second-floor window,” said Raibert, whose company has doubled in size to 90 people in the past 18 months. “We really see what we can make technology do, and see if there’s a need for it.”
Many of the newest robotics companies are finding there is a growing need — or a desire — for their products from manufacturers and other companies looking to lower labor costs by having a robot perform jobs, rather than people.
Harvest Automation Inc., of Billerica, shipped its first production robots for greenhouses and nurseries in December. The forklift-like machine moves heavy plants around garden facilities and costs $30,000.
The company has raised about $13 million in venture capital funding.
The rise of robots in the workforce is again raising the question of whether they will replace American workers.
“We are replacing the work, not the worker,” said Scott Eckert, chief executive of Rethink Robotics, which this year began shipping its manufacturing robot, named Baxter.
The $22,000 robot — it has a muscular torso, gangly red arms, and expressive cartoon eyes — is designed to perform simple tasks in small and medium-size manufacturing facilities.
The idea is that robots will do the simple stuff, leaving the more complex work to humans, Eckert said.
Like many other robotics companies here, Harvest and Rethink were founded by former executives of iRobot Corp., one of the state’s oldest robotics companies.
“I think the robot industry in Massachusetts is growing because innovation begets innovation,” said Colin Angle, iRobot’s chief executive.
“IRobot trained these people how to make money in this challenging industry.”
Indeed, iRobot has struggled to deal with a changing marketplace as the military side of the business has fallen sharply in the face of federal government budget restraints.
That, however, has not deterred CyPhy Works Inc., a company also started by former iRobot executives.
“The military is a market where it’s genuine life-and- death scenarios,” said Jason Walker, director of operations for CyPhy, founded in 2008 at an old Framingham video store. It moved to a lab in Danvers with the help of $3 million in venture funding from such investors as the Cambridge firm General Catalyst.
Though still in a nascent stage, robotics is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the state’s innovation economy, adding 900 jobs over the past four years, said Tom Hopcroft, the Mass Technology Leadership Council’s chief executive.
“It’s slowly becoming mainstream,” he said. “I see a future that is very exciting, and there are only a couple of places on the planet that can make that happen — and we live in one of them.”