Technology

The Rise of Robotics

You might not realize it, but we live in a world reliant upon robotics and, thanks to some innovative Minnesotans, a significant rise in the field is just around the corner.

By Peter Lindstrom

In 2008, Burnsville police received a call about an armed, suicidal female who was barricaded in a condominium complex.

From a safe distance, the SWAT team directed a robot throughout the condo and even though the light was dim, the video images came back clear. SWAT members were able to safely enter the home knowing the exact location of the knife-wielding woman.

The miniature reconnaissance robot is a 100 percent Minnesota-made device by Edina-based ReconRobotics, a company formed in 2006 to commercialize technology developed at the University of Minnesota's Distributed Robotics Laboratory. Worldwide, more than 1,200 of the company's robots have been deployed by the feds (U.S. military, DEA, FBI, etc.) as well as state and local law enforcement for protection in high-risk operations. The school hostage simulation video found at reconrobotics.com is spine-chilling and makes a compelling argument for why these are necessary tools.

Like ReconRobotics, Shoreview-based PaR Systems, Inc. is in the business of handling critical situations. Since 1961, they have been a leader in providing high-accuracy robotic and highly engineered automation equipment and systems solutions. Need a robot to precisely weld spent nuclear fuel encasements shut? Call PaR Systems. Want to keep a safe distance from the demilitarization of chemical munitions? Let the remote robotic equipment from PaR Systems handle the job. PaR is trusted with handling some of the most sensitive materials on the planet. It's no wonder that they have longstanding relationships with companies like General Mills and 3M, and have experienced 25 percent growth over the last two years.

Even the tedious task of pushing a lawn mower may get easier thanks to Bloomington-based Toro. The company is working on a robotic mower. Mowers, like cars, have become much more sophisticated, to the point where Toro's top mowers are essentially computers on wheels, equipped with multiple microprocessors, a network and wireless communications. The company is working hard to find solutions to the remaining challenges, primarily around collision detection and precision positioning. Once those challenges are overcome, a robotic mower could save millions for labor-intensive acreages like golf courses and high-profile sports fields.

Of course, the local epicenter for robotics activity is the University of Minnesota's Distributed Robotics Laboratory. Under the visionary direction of Dr. Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos, the robotics lab is at the cutting edge of designing and building robots similar to those sold by ReconRobotics. However, it has a potentially more important goal: To energize the next generation of innovators, which it does via a Technology Day Camp that targets low-income middle school youth.

Robotic camps and competitions-you might be familiar with the tremendously successful FIRST Robotics competitions-smash the inaccurate perception that science, technology, engineering and math education is dull and nerdy. Instead, they send an accurate message that robotics affects virtually every aspect of daily life, from the cars we drive and the iPhones we use to the medication we take and the food we eat.

Today's robotics professionals are at the forefront of solving some of our most challenging problems. This includes treating disease, protecting us from acts of terrorism, providing for a clean environment, space exploration that gives further insight into our planetary system and origins, and technological advances that enhance our standard of living.

The demand for robotics professionals is growing. A simple search on Monster.com identified 325 Minnesota jobs requiring robotics experience. A recent survey of 117 robotics companies shows that small companies predominate-60 percent have fewer than 50 employees, while only 16 percent have more than 1,000 employees. Nearly 40 percent have less than $1 million in revenue and almost three-quarters expect to grow in the next five years. Most of the vacancies will be for engineering and scientific positions.

The survey identified the most desirable engineering candidates as having the ability to solve problems, think critically, work on their own and on teams, communicate, show leadership and be professional. So it's funny; one could say that the most sought after skill in robotics is having the human touch. Ironic, isn't it?

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