Government Push for Robotics

January 2011
by Bryan Bergeron

Advances in robotics, like the growth of the economy, seem to be at a standstill. As a result, few new technologies have trickled down to the enthusiast level. That’s about to change. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have teamed up to fund a 100 small business grants that will advance the field of robotics. You can find the full announcement at http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PAR-10-279.html.

This is great news for the field of robotics. Because so many agencies are involved, the areas of robotics that will be funded are exceptionally broad. In fact, the most intriguing part of the grant announcement is the range of categories eligible for funding. Reproducing the full list of categories here would require several pages. Even so, the main categories and example topic areas are worth reviewing because they provide an encyclopedia view of the field of robotics. I’ve arranged notable examples of robotics research topics by funding agency.

National Institutes of Health (NIH), the primary US Federal agency for conducting and supporting biomedical and behavioral research, is funding research directed towards innovations in robotics in four main areas: home care; rehabilitation; surgery; and laboratory automation. In the area of home care is funding to develop robots that remind patients to take their medication, monitor blood pressure and other vital signs, and wirelessly communicate the findings to a doctor or nurse.

Rehabilitation robotics range from robot caregivers, robotic implants and prosthetics, and devices that help the blind navigate, to avatar-based psychiatrists. The flashiest topics in the area of robotic surgery include implantable smart robots, robots to train surgeons, robotic surgical assistants, and organ/limb replacement robots. Some of the most promising areas of development in laboratory automation robotics include the remote sensing of toxins in the environment and the automated storage and retrieval of medical samples in storage. For humans, the first task is potentially harmful; the second is simply boring.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which is tasked with maintaining the technological superiority of the US military, is promoting the development of actuators that can replace human muscle. DARPA is looking for ‘better than biology’ actuators that meet or exceed the safety and efficacy of human muscle. I’m thinking Terminator 3 is a good place to start.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), a longtime source of funding for the robotics community, is promoting the development of technologies that support patient mobility and rehabilitation robotics. The NSF has promised support for fundamental research in materials, manufacturing, signal processing, micro electromechanical system (MEMS) devices, neural control, social-assist robots, simulators, robots for training/learning processes, and energy harvesting techniques.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) which is focused on food, agriculture, and natural resources, seems out of place in this group of funding agencies. However, the agency is looking for robots to assist in the production, harvesting, sorting, storing, processing, inspection, packaging, marketing, and transportation of food. These are no easy tasks from a robotics perspective. Consider what’s involved in picking fruit from a tree or bush, from image recognition and fine motion control, to the ability to work in an outdoor environment that may be hot, cold, sunny, dark, wet, or dry. Or, think of what’s involved in vaccinating a calf or other uncooperative animal.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), saddled with preventing terrorism and enhancing security, is promoting robotic technologies to counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and for cross border tunnel surveillance. In brief, DHS is looking for technologies to remotely or robotically access, diagnose, and render safe IEDs, and to remotely survey tunnels and other subterranean structures. One of the interesting caveats is that the survey robots should be capable of “rapidly traversing obstacles such as stairs, curbs, and corrugated drainage pipes.” I can’t wait to see what someone comes up with to handle corrugated drain pipes.

Funding begins in September of 2011, and a typical small business grant or SBIR provides support for up to a year. With all that activity in robotics, it’s inevitable that we’ll have a new generation of hardware, software, and robotics systems to work with. If you or your company is competing for one of these grants, please consider sharing a high-level description of your work with our readers. SV


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