Sunday, September 6, 2009

Robotics Rodeo at Ft. Hood

I had the good fortune to attend the Robotics Rodeo at Ft. Hood last week- a rodeo of unmanned ground robotics hosted by U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) and Fort Hood III Corps (go Phantom Warriors!). A wonderful experience and many thanks to the CO Gen. Ricky Lynch (he has MS in robotics from MIT).

Some pictures are above and some thoughts about the commercialization of robotics...

According to a good friend, Bill Kearns, at the turn of the last century, there were over 200 car manufacturers in North America. (His family’s business was one of them.) Each manufacturer had something special, a starter motor, independent suspension, what have you. An amazing array of advances, some redundant, many brilliant.

But the problem was, they weren’t on the same car. Who wanted the latest, greatest engine on a car that you had to use with a hand crank?

Durant and Ford were credited with manufacturing but sometimes it is missed that they
it wasn’t just that they mastered mass production, they mastered mass production of the right thing. They were among the first to view the cars as the sum of its parts. The superior technology of a component (usually invented by the owner) was not the reason for existence but rather a marketable feature of a desirable whole. As was stressed in one of my mechanical engineering courses, automobile companies are manufacturing companies, which make things for people to buy, not engineering companies, which create or investigate ideas for someone else to make into things for people to buy. Automotive companies at the turn of the century were really about engineering, not about the car. A similar pattern of scattered developments which were consolidated into systems happened in the aerospace industry.

The Robotics Rodeo reinforced my opinion that ground robotics is in the same state. Interesting pieces, some brilliant engineering, lots of duplication, and few useful systems.

One conclusion is that this is the Natural Order of Things and will sort itself out over time. This line of reasoning is: perhaps some duplication will result in lesser technologies occasionally trumping superior technologies and some dollars will be wasted. But this should be tolerated since the duplication and competition is usually efficient overall and reduces purchase prices, right? Besides, premature standards or regulations can kill off an emerging technology.

The Natural Order of Things philosophy has problems. In asymmetric warfare, do we have time or dare risk being beta-maxed by an adversary? And in days of trillion dollar deficits, will we be able to afford the cost of duplication? Remember, the government is subsidizing the UGV market (either through
DoD or law enforcement) whereas automotive industry was private capital. There is no real consumer market for these devices. Is UGV development is in fact regulated by the invisible hand of capitalism or being de facto regulated by current defense acquisition processes. If so, is that a good or a bod thing? I don't know...


  1. So how do we figure out what the "right things" are? I've always told people that the fact that it is a robot is not important - its what you do with them that counts. It not the robot part - its the fact that it lets you deal with dangerous situations from a safe distance.

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