With the exception of military and space applications, the United States is falling behind Europe and Asia in robotics research, according to an international study by the World Technology Evaluation Center.
WTEC members gathered Friday at the National Science Foundation to announce the study results, which indicate that, unlike many other developed countries, the United States lacks a coordinated strategy to cultivate robotics development.
"It's clear that the U.S. leads in some areas of robotics but lags in others," said George Bekey, emeritus professor of computer science at the University of Southern California.
Bekey said that robotics research funding has been dropping in the United States for at least the last decade, with NSF's funding now at less than $10 million per year.
In contrast, he said Japan's government will spend nearly $100 million in 2005. And over the next three years, Europe plans to spend nearly $100 million on a new program called Advanced Robotics. South Korea, meanwhile, spends $80 million on robotics research annually.
The U.S. government has been reluctant to directly fund much of the robotics research that could lead to consumer and business applications. "It's known as corporate welfare in the United States, and it's frowned upon," said Bekey, who added that the private sector has also undercapitalized many startup robotics firms in the United States because return on investment can take many years. "In Japan, for example, investors are much more patient," he said.
Of course, the study's results didn't deter robotics researchers who were on hand Friday from unleashing their inventions at the NSF.
Sarjoun Skaff, a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University, showed off a six-legged, wall-scaling robot that could aid with the inspection of buildings or, "if you're military minded, you may think about spying," said Skaff.
Daniela Rus, an associate professor at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or CSAIL, demonstrated the modular, self-configuring molecule robot that can change shapes to get into tight spaces.
"You could use a bunch of them to plug a hole in a levee," she said, referencing the Hurricane Katrina disaster. "Or if it has to go through a tunnel, you could squeeze through like a snake."
CSAIL assistant professor Russ Tedrake, meanwhile, showed off a small bipedal android that "learns to walk from scratch," he said. "As the terrain changes, it changes." Such adaptability could allow learning bots to work more autonomously in any environment. "It's a revolution in robotics," he said.
Laurent Itti, an assistant professor of computer science, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California, displayed a mechanical robot head programmed to scan its environment just as a curious human would. "It's looking for interesting things in the room," said Itti, noting that the technology could aid in security or help robots act more humanlike.
Other exhibits were relegated to the cavernous NSF atrium where Haldun Komsuoglu was showing off a small but scrappy robot named RHex that climbed stairs, walked upside down and chased amused spectators.
The robot can reach speeds of 8.2 feet per second and go 2.3 miles on one battery charge.
The atrium also hosted a mockup of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover, as well as several new robotic reconnaissance vehicles being developed by students at Drexel University under a U.S. Army contract. One robot that looked like a standard model plane is designed to drop into a vertical stance and hover like a helicopter.
"We're trying to design very innovative solutions so we can fly through caves and forests," said Paul Oh, director of the Drexel Autonomous Systems Lab.
A larger robotic craft dubbed Air Scout could perform reconnaissance in or carry payloads to and from "urban and closed environments," said Oh. It's designed to fit easily onto the back of a military Humvee and can be lifted by two soldiers.
Oh said that robotics continues to capture the imagination of his students, despite funding issues. "They stay up all night working on these things," he said. "They have such a passion." source