Tag: cu boulder
I’ve been intrigued with robots since I was a little kid. When I was at MIT in the 1980’s, there was a huge movement around the future of robotics. A few of my friends, most notably Colin Angle, went on to do something and co-founded iRobot which he still runs 25 years later. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to robots or robotics in the 1990’s as I got caught up in the Internet, but started thinking about them again about five years ago. Over the past few years, as part of our human computer interaction theme, we’ve invested in several companies doing “robotics related stuff” including MakerBot (3D Printers) and Orbotix (a robotic ball controlled by a smartphone). I’ve also looked at lots of robot-related companies and thought hard about the notion that the machines have already taken over and are just waiting patiently for us to catch up.
Recently I met with Nikolaus Correll, an assistant professor at CU Boulder in the Computer Science department. Nikolaus does research on multi-robot systems and has a bunch of great commercial ideas about robotics. As we were talking, we started discussing other people in Boulder who were working on robotics related stuff. It turns out to be a long list and Nikolaus asked “why don’t people talk more about all the robotics stuff going on in Boulder?” I had no clue so I said “let’s start a movement – titled Boulder is for Robots. Let’s get anyone doing robotics related stuff together and create some entrepreneurial critical mass around this, just like we have for the software / Internet community.”
We agreed that Boulder Is For Robots is a great call to action and are having our first Boulder Is For Robots Meetup on February 7th from 5pm – 10pm. Bring your robots – I’ll supply pizza and beer. You have to sign up in the Boulder Is For Robots Meetup group to find out the location.
In the mean time, following are some thoughts on the robot-related stuff going on in Boulder from Nikolaus. If you are working on something interesting, please add to the list.
Why “Boulder is for Robots” can be tied to a single observation: when I was working as a Post-Doc at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, almost everything we ordered to build robots came from somewhere less than an hour from Boulder. Why is this important? Let’s consider how Steve Wozniak developed the Apple computer, which revolutionized the computer industry from a garage. Did he really create a computer from scratch, transistor by transistor? Or did he emerge from hundreds of tinkerers that relied on a large community that provided mail-order electronic kits, do-it-your-self magazines, inspirational people, and hundreds of man years of university research? The bay area was indeed the place to be at the time with the Homebrew Computer Club and marketing genius Steve Jobs who convinced Wozniak to sell his design, laying the foundation for Apple. Building robots is much more complex than building computers, however: robots consist not only of computers, but also of sensors and mechanisms that need to be invented, re-combined, and modified to create a compelling product. I therefore believe that being part of a community is even more important for developing successful robot companies and having all the tools, know-how, and manpower close by provides a unique competitive advantage.
Boulder provides this infrastructure: For example, Sparkfun enables tens of thousands of amateurs and researchers to create electronic and mechatronic artifacts. They do that not only by retailing hard-to-acquire electronic components and innovative pre-fabbed modules that drastically increase the productivity of hobbyists, entrepreneurs and researchers across the nation, but they also provide free access to a wealth of educational resources that allow amateurs to mimic industrial processes, often just using kitchen equipment. Similarly, Acroname and RoadNarrow Robotics retails sensors and ready-made devices for building state-of-the-art robots, including laser scanners, motor drivers, and digital servos. All three companies actively develop hardware and software that make the integration of ever more complex mechatronic products possible in garages. They also contribute to a pool of “Can-Do” people that spin off companies.
Boulder turns out to be also a hub for manufacturing: close-by Aurora is home to one of the best deals in PCB Manufacturing ($33/each) in the country (Advanced Circuits) and the first – and still only – assembly service in the nation (AAPCB) that assembles single boards for less than $50.
While developers across the nation benefit from these Boulder-area companies, this unique ecosystem of tinkerers, leading manufacturing techniques, and suppliers create a vivid community that amplifies innovation in the Boulder area and already has attracted a series of successful robotics start-ups: For example, Modrobotics, a CMU spin-off, makes transformative robotic construction kits that could be the next “Lego”. Orbotix co-founded by a duo of young engineers from CSU and UNC that became part of the Boulder TechStars 2010 class and subsequently raised over $6m of venture money for their new gaming robot, Sphero. OccamRobotics, founded by a serial entrepreneur who came to Boulder from the bay area, is working on low-cost, autonomous pallet trucks that build up on recent breakthroughs in robotic algorithms, availability of open-source tools, and novel sensors.
Each these companies have in common that their founders identified Boulder as the place that will make them most successful – often moving here from other hot-spots for high-tech entrepreneurship and engineering. These start-ups are complemented by mechatronic giants such as Ball Aerospace, close-by Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin; small and medium-sized companies that develop robotic equipment for satellites and defense organizations; by a myriad of self-financed tinkerers that develop everything from robotic insects to robotic wheel-chairs in their living rooms and next-generation agriculture systems at Boulder’s Hacker-space Solid State Depot; and of course, the University of Colorado of which many engineering programs are among the top of the nation and the world, and which has a strong research program in unmanned aerial systems.
My lab is working on our agriculture system’s most pressing challenges, robots that can assemble large-scale telescope dishes in space to see into remote galaxies, understanding how intelligence can emerge from large-scale distributed, individually simple components, and constructing robotic facades that help save us power. These efforts are complemented by hands-on classes such as Robotics, Advanced Robotics, Things that Think, or Real-time embedded systems, and others, to shape a new generation of engineers who think of computers as devices that cannot only compute, but sense and literally change the world.
Why now? Robotics has been an industry since the 1960’s when George Devol’s Unimate was sold to manipulate steel plates in a GM plant. Indeed, robots have revolutionized manufacturing, but still have not delivered on early claims of the field. Robot stunts delivered by the Unimate on the 1961 “Tonight” show, still remain a major challenge for artificial intelligence 50 years later: opening a can of beer, pouring it, or directing an orchestra. These commercially successful robots, which led to the raise of Japan to a major industrial power in the 1980’s, were not autonomous, but simply execute pre-calculated paths. This trend is finally changing right now, documented by companies such as iRobot, Husqvarna and KIVA systems who successfully market autonomous robotic products, and is mainly driven by exponential developments in computing (“Moore’s Law”), cell phones and cars – both industries who integrate computing and sensors at high density.
“Boulder is for Robots” is not only an observation, but also an imperative to bring entrepreneurs, tinkerers, and capital together to bring the next big robotic idea to life in Boulder by exchanging know-how, man-power, and tools, and combining them into great new products. In case you already knew that “Boulder is for Robots”, please comment on this post and share what you do!
Over the past decade, I’ve developed a very close friendship and work collaboration with Phil Weiser. Phil is now the Dean of the CU Law School. Prior to this he spent several years in the Obama Administration, most recently as the Senior Advisor for Technology and Innovation to the National Economic Council Director. We first met when Phil was running Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship, an organization he founded at CU Boulder.
Phil is an incredible thinker, totally understands entrepreneurship, is on a quest to level up law school education, and is my guide to all things politics. Simply put, he’s awesome.
He’s also hiring two positions – both of which report to him. If you are interested in these areas, I strongly encourage you to apply as Phil is a remarkable person to work with, and for.
Director of Communications and Public Relations: responsible for improving and expanding written and electronic communication within the Law School and for developing/ maintaining a public-relations program for the Law School. The Director will further serve to develop and implement an aggressive strategy to use traditional and innovative media work with the External Affairs team inorder to communicate the Law School’s research, teaching, and service excellence to external audiences.
Director of Information Technology: oversees all technology-related responsibilities and efforts for the University of Colorado Law School. In so doing, the Director will evaluate and support a range of strategies for using technology more effectively to advance the mission of the Law School and the effectiveness of its departments.
As a bonus, I expect you’ll get more time with me since I spend a chunk of mine with whatever Phil wants me to do.
As entrepreneurship in Boulder continues to grow, Boulder Digital Works is offering a new course with Robert Reich (co-founder of OpenSpace, OneRiot, and the Boulder New Tech Meetup) called StartUp: Learning Entrepreneurism. This is the first BDW course open to anyone in the Boulder community to join BDW’s graduate students.
StartUp begins with the premise that entrepreneurship, rather than being the result of genius and magic, can be learned. StartUp takes the students through the actual conception, development, and launch of an original product or service during the semester. This course puts students inside the mind of the entrepreneur and immerses them in the daily leadership and innovation challenges of the startup environment. While its primary focus is the startup and what it demands, this course is also a clinic in thinking, decision making, and mental agility that will benefit any area of business – not just startups.
Download detailed information and an application for StartUp: Learning Entrepreneurism if you are interested.
CU just received a $17 million grant from NASA to probe the faint sounds of the early universe and better understand the lunar environment. I wonder if the Colorado Center for Lunar Dust and Atmospheric Studies will adopt Pink Floyd as their official band. Whenever I hear of something NASA is funding, I think of the exchange between Josh and Leo in the West Wing episode The Warfare of Genghis Khan.
Leo McGarry: My generation never got the future it was promised. Thirty-five years later, cars, air travel’s exactly the same. We don’t even have the Concorde anymore. Technology stopped.
Josh Lyman: The personal computer?
Leo McGarry: Where’s my jet pack, my colonies on the Moon?
I think Go Fast is making my Jet Pack.
Given that I have poor impulse control, I want it now.