Robotics Matured on Pentagon Budgets That Are Now Shrinking

Important parts of today’s robotics industry got a huge boost in the arm over the last decade (and more) through Pentagon programs, often driven by a desire to protect troops in the field.  Particularly as a technology for dealing with IEDs, as well as important tactical surveillance roles.  Those direct battlefield applications are distinct from DARPA’s role in fostering such rapidly emerging technologies as driverless cars.  Nathan Hodge at the Wall Street Journal (behind pay wall, sorry) looks at the technologies fueled by Pentagon funding, and looks to the ways in which shrinking defense funding will affect robotics research and development.  The good news is that some important parts of it are sufficiently proved and matured that they will be able to continue to develop pretty seamlessly in the civilian sector.

Industry officials say the shift in government support is taking place just as the robotics market is maturing. Eight years ago, the U.S. Army had 162 robots and robotic devices. Since then, it has bought 7,000. With some devices lost in combat and others retired, it now has more than 4,000 robots on hand.

In the early days of the Iraq war, the U.S. military bought a variety of robots off the shelf, rather than going through the lengthy process of selecting and developing a one-size-fits-all model. They can range in price from just over $10,000 to a quarter of a million dollars. Robots took on missions beyond their early deployment as bomb detectors—to scouting inside bunkers or caves. They come in many forms, from handheld devices tossed through a window to check out a room, to large, tracked robots that can lift heavy objects ….

As government funding changes, manufacturers are also looking for new applications for robotic technology. QinetiQ is developing ways to make military vehicles—such as trucks or Humvees—”optionally manned,” equipped with aftermarket kits that would allow them to be driven by remote control, or even operate autonomously. Federal officials are encouraging inventiveness. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency this week announced a contest to develop robots that could aid in disaster response.

For all of the attention that goes to remotely piloted vehicles, many of the new emerging technologies likely to have deep impact in the civilian sector are not aerial vehicles.  Driverless cars is a technology that is emerging faster than, I think, practically anyone thought possible, in part because there were serious questions about whether individual cars could become driverless and operate on their own, or whether they had to be part of a gigantic networked system of driverless vehicles.  I have often noted here at Volokh that the nursing industry is ripe for greater reliance on robotic technologies of many kinds.  Aviation is important, but it is far from the whole story.  And the background role of law and regulation will have an impact on the directions that technology moves, as Stanford’s Ryan Calo has often noted.  (In that regard, check out the upcoming University of Miami conference on law and robotics, We Robot – if I had been more diligent, I would have submitted a paper, but the conference looks terrific and I look forward to reading the work that comes out of it.)