Robotics seen as growth area for Defense Department

Policy needs to catch up with technology, panelists say; funding also a challenge.

The Defense Department is working to advance scientific efforts on robotics, but technology may be outpacing policy before it is even crafted, panelists said Monday.

"Policy and procedure need to catch up with technology," said Stephen Welby, a tactical technology officer for the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, who spoke at a Heritage Foundation event.

"The robotics technology that we have available today can save lives," noted John Leonard, a professor of mechanical and ocean engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

But "we are currently in the Wright brothers stage," Welby said, referring to pioneers of flight Wilbur and Orville Wright.

Although U.S. military efforts have greatly considered fusion with modern robotics technology, there are fundamental challenges -- like securing adequate funding.

"Mechanical engineering [for robotics] is much more difficult than we thought," said Vladimir Lumelsky, a technologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center who works for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This underestimation has caused a gap in the amount of funding current robotics' efforts are receiving worldwide, he said.

"Sustained investment in university-based research..." is essential, said Leonard.

European investment into robotics research has fueled a $173 million program in Europe for basic research purposes. Japan is working on an $8.8 million robotics plan to assist the elderly.

They also noted that robotics can aid U.S. troops in military maneuvers.

The terrain in the Middle East presents a problem to troops, but robotics can take them further out of harm's way. Welby noted that robots have "the ability to do things beyond human capability." While DARPA focuses primarily on tele-operation and autonomous robotic systems, the agency seeks to create "new designs and new ways" of thinking about robots.

Robotic vehicles are amongst DARPA's main initiatives. "If we can take people out [of the equation], then we can leverage new capabilities," Welby said. The RQ-4A Global Hawk - an unmanned aerial vehicle - currently holds the record for the single most combat flight hours. "That's pretty impressive," Welby added.

The upcoming Urban Challenge aims to prove that cross-country mobility is possible via robotics, especially in the Middle East. The race, which is scheduled for Nov. 3, 2007, will involve competitors from across the nation. They hope to successfully complete a race where unmanned robots will "drive in traffic using two commands: start and stop," according to Welby.

Robotics is a persistently changing technology looking for new solutions. "I mean, what is the answer to suicide bombers?" said Helen Greiner, co-founder and chairwoman of iRobot. "We are looking to go places in many different ways."

Sniper detection and U.S. border security are areas that iRobot and MIT hope to make further progress in. But "we are currently focusing on the market and affordability for consumers," Greiner said.

Competition with uncertainty may be the second largest factor dampening the robotics movement. And while the majority of robotics investments are in the industrial sector, possible programs at the Pentagon hope to realize the need for robotics in the U.S. military.

The efforts "are doable but take emphasis and resources," Lumelsky said.