Robotics: The Next Frontier for Explorers

The Massachusetts robotics industry has been attracting attention recently, and deservedly so. Last month, the Boston Globe reported that the state has almost 100 robotics companies and 35 robotics research and design programs. Michael Gennert of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute – the first school in the country to offer an undergraduate degree program in robotic engineering – noted that “Massachusetts has shipped more robots than anywhere else in the world.” From Rethink Robotics’s Baxter, which can work right alongside employees on an assembly line; to Hydroid’s REMUS 6000, which was used in the reconnaissance mission of the Air France Flight-447 crash; to Boston Dynamics’s BigDog, which can carry up to 340 pounds across rough terrain (and is strangely reminiscent of that spidery machine that takes Maurice away in Beauty and the Beast), Massachusetts is creating some pretty impressive technology.

Photo: Alvin illuminates the fallen foremast of the Titanic wreck - Source: David Valenzuela's Flickr account - farm6.staticflickr.com
Photo: Alvin illuminates the fallen foremast of the Titanic wreck - Source: David Valenzuela's Flickr account - farm6.staticflickr.com

In a report released last month, the Mass Technology Leadership Council highlighted that 18 new robotics start-ups have been created in Massachusetts since 2008; and even in a down economy, 900 new MA-based robotics jobs have been created in the last four years. But besides the obvious attraction to an industry that’s growing rather than slumping, robotics may be the new frontier for those drawn to the idea of exploration. Baby boomers grew up wanting to be astronauts after watching Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walk on the moon; the next generation watched the robotic submersibles in the underwater footage in Titanic (aka the Navy and WHOIs’ Alvin) and more recently, the Mars rover on its mission to explore Mars’ surface.

Robots are allowing for exploration that could never have been imagined in past decades. Robotic technologies can withstand the physical pressure of being miles underwater, to search for lost wreckages or map deep sea geography. They can go without oxygen to analyze the terrain of other planets. And while they’re not surveying the new environment on foot like explorers of the past, the engineers who design and operate these devices are the first to discover, investigate and document their uncharted territory. It’s a dream career for modern-day Lewis and Clarks.

Massachusetts has the perfect set-up for fostering the robotics industry. World class universities and engineering programs, in combination with research institutes, venture capital firms and the success of established robotics companies will keep our state a hotbed for robotic development. Add in the excitement and allure of exploring the unknown and I don’t think our fascination with robotics will wane anytime soon.

Lucy Muscarella is a Consultant at Greenough. Follow her on Twitter@lucymuscarella