Wednesday, January 13, 2010

2010 Robotics Predications; Reality Check for 2009

Trick math question: If you have $100 and lose 50% and then gain back 50% of that, how much do you have?
  1. $100
  2. $50
  3. $75
  4. None of the above.
Stock markets around the world rose dramatically in 2009. Robotic stocks did as well or better than the major tracking indexes, particularly service robotic stocks. But the real story isn't the gains of 2009 but the lack of recovery from 2007.

An example: U.S. publicly-traded industrial robotic companies saw their stocks rise 40% in 2009. But those same stocks lost 53% in 2008. Thus their year-to-date rise in 2009 of 40% really only recovered 16 points of the 53 lost the year before. U.S. industrial robotic stocks are still down 37% from their close at the end of 2007 as are almost all robotic stocks worldwide. That is what these Robo-Stox™ charts - one for industrial robotic companies and another for service companies - attempt to show. Click to enlarge.

Most countries' robotics stocks didn't fare as well as the American NASDAQ Index with the exception of Canada, India, Israel, Taiwan and a very few individual stocks. Thus although 2009 was a significant up year for stocks, and robotic stocks in particular, robotic stocks have yet to recover their highs of 2007 and have a long way to go to do so.

The serious effect of the recent worldwide stock market and economic crash causing the drop in market value of the companies, the loss of jobs, orders, revenue and profits - is a long way from recovery. Although jobs in the robotics sector are available for qualified takers, particularly in the service sector, unemployment in general is dramatically high and most economists are predicting that it will be well into 2012 before any real gains occur.

That is not to say that all is pessimistic, particularly for robotic businesses. 2010 looks to be a good year with definite "drivers" effecting selected marketplaces.

Worldwide military, police and security agencies are continuing to purchase and invest in R&D for all types of unmanned, remote-operated aerial, underwater and ground robotic devices. More jobs - with the likelihood of continued growth over the next few years.

Medical robotics (included in the services sector) are poised for many years of rapid growth propelled by:
  1. Growing patient demand for non-invasive surgery,
  2. The current effort to reduce hospital costs by increasing productivity through a variety of robotic activities (non-invasive surgery, pill dispensing, materials transfer, lab assistance, etc.),
  3. Hospitals, which have held back capital purchases (such as Intuitive Surgical's million dollar da Vinci devices) for the past two years, are beginning to reinvest in these types of equipment.

With the return of small amounts of discretionary income back into the economy, consumers are once again interested in robotic toys and kits as can be seen by 2009's Christmas rush to buy millions of robotic hamsters (Zhu Zhu) and thousands robotic penguins.  And the hit of CES was an indoor-flying, iPhone-controlled, quad copter by Parrot that will sell for $129.

For industrial robot manufacturers, orders will stay down for quite a while. For those vendors that have switched or are making inroads into the services sector, the horrendous spate of bankruptcies (photo: used robots for sale from closed Chrysler plant) and buy-outs has stopped and the future is looking brighter expecially in new markets including the SME market.

Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) are now being offered affordable robotic products that haven't been available to them before, first in Europe and Asia, and later in the U.S. Lightweight and easily trainable, these flexible robots are enabling these smaller manufacturers to increase productivity and not have to go off-shore to produce their products.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Robotics 2009 - A Review

Singularity Hub, a website reporting advances in nanotechnology, genetics, biology, AI, aging and robotics, presented their 2009 Best Robots pictorial, a graphic review of some of the most interesting robots in the news in 2009.  A few of the entries were frivolous or  prototypes with no prospect of near-term commercialization, and there were some major omissions, but overall it gives a favorable impression of the progress made during 2009 - and prospects for the future - in robotics. It made me think that it might be time to review my own progress through 2009.

In June, 2008, I began to research the robotics industry - and the future of robotics - with an eye toward selectively investing in publicly-traded or privately held robotics businesses. I set up The Robot Report as an adjunct of my research - to share the data I've collected and to provide a visual method to track the business of robotics.  I've also been compiling a database of robotic companies and facilities worldwide and developed an industry chart (RoboStox™) of publicly-traded service and industrial robotic companies from which to compare their change to that of the NASDAQ and the DJIA indexes. RoboStox™is updated and recapped monthly on The Robot Report.

My research was necessary because my stock brokers didn't have a list of companies involved in robotics. They had a few stock tips but nothing comprehensive about the industry. Nor was there a fund or index for the industry.  Not even a knowledgeable specialist or quant. I realized that I had to do the legwork myself. It's been an intensive project that has taken me to Korea, Germany, Japan, and all over the Internet. My eyesight has suffered but not my mind. I love what I'm doing and discovering.

September 2008 was right about the time that the economic crisis really hit. Stocks took their second and biggest dive. People were on the edge of panic. Things hidden behind years of obfuscation became painfully visible in the media.

Robotic stocks tumbled that September. Fell like bricks. But I was still optimistic. I thought that by the time I really grasped the business of robotics, I'd be able to select the good from the chaff, and ride the wave back up, should it ever happen.

Thus far I've identified more than 600 companies (worldwide) that produce robotic products, 150 of which are publicly traded. Of the 600, many are conglomerates or companies where robotics aren't their primary business - ABB is an example. Less than 1/3 of ABB revenue is from robotics, yet ABB is one of the major robotics providers in the world.  Many of the companies aren't listed on American exchanges. My database has another 650 companies, some of which are public, that are ancillary to the industry providing everything from engineering, integration, software, vision systems and other necessary components to purely educational and research facilities. I have another 200 UAV providers on hold because many are unlikely to become commercially viable due to restrictions in airspace and the probability that countless years will pass before those limitations are lifted.

Observations from 2009:
  • Strategic funding toward a robotics industry via a roadmap is non-existant in the U.S. but not in Korea, Japan and the EU. Their "roadmaps" have been designed, plotted out, funded, the public-private groups selected, and the tasks and research are underway.  Korea's $1.25 billion Frontier Program has an overall goal of a robot in every household and for Korea to become the primary worldwide provider of industrial robots by 2018. Japan's $100 million transition to service robotics is reflected in a variety of prototype elder and home care robots and smaller multi-functional assistance robots. The EU has funded (at least $600 million) for a variety of public-private consortiums in the area of cognitive systems, human-robot and robot-robot interaction.
  • In America, we are many years behind.  Our "roadmap" was presented to a congressional caucus in February but has yet to be approved or funded.  If it does get approved and then funded, it is unlikely to get into the budget until FY 2013 or 2014.  As an American, I find this to be quite disturbing.
  • Pragmatic funding for robotics does happen in the U.S. particularly for defense through DARPA, space, and from a select few individual entrepreneurs.
  • Although there is and will be stimulus for high tech from the 2009 Economic Stimulus Bill, there is NONE for robotics; rather, there's money for healthcare digitization, enhancing the national broadband system and for energy efficiency (mostly in the form of grants and tax credits) and the ARPA-E grants for the development of enhanced battery technologies, carbon capture and other non-robotic research.
  • Industrial robot producers have been diversifying and consolidating into the service sector and improving their products by making them lighter, more capable, less requiring of a safety cage, and easily trained.
  • Like other companies suffering the economic crisis, orders have been down and employee cuts were necessary.  But that trend appears to be reversing in the services sector.
  • Proof of this last point came from job offer information from LinkedIn and the Robotics-Worldwide mailing list - sources for monitoring such offerings.  One can see particular progress in the areas of bionics, motion vision, human-robot and robot-robot communication, motion flexibility, and artificial intelligence.  
  • Worldwide robotics stocks - in anticipation of a return to economic normalcy - have recouped much of their losses from lows reached early this year.  Nevertheless, almost all are still lower than they were in 2008.
  • Other researchers are getting on the robotics bandwagon in addition to The Robot Report.  Three new players offered pay-for material about the industry in 2009. The Robot Report, of course, is free.
Thus 2009 was a year of retrenchment for industrial robotic suppliers - product improvements and movement toward new products in the service robotics sector.  Industrial orders may have been down, but companies making the move to the service sector are hiring and marketing.  One exception to this has been in defense, space and surveillance where orders and sales are up.  Although news reports make it appear to be an American thing, it really is a worldwide phenomenon.  Countries from Israel to South Africa, from Brazil to China, are all developing security and defense bots of one type or another.

For me, 2009 was a year of research, database development and learning.  As the year progressed I began to focus on areas of particular appeal: rehabilitative robotics, agricultural robots, and medium-priced robotic toys to name a few.  People and companies began to discuss their financial needs with me and my collection of NDA's is growing.  Hopefully 2010 will be the year where everything robotic gels and we all have an exiting and prosperous robotics New Year.  One can only hope!

PS: 'Christmas Fun with Electronic Robots' was the cover story on the now-defunct Popular Electronics magazine back in December, 1958 - 51 years ago.  The issue sold for 35 cents!  I scanned and Photoshopped the cover into the graphic shown above.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Revelations from Tokyo

iREX2009 (International Robot Exposition 2009) held at the Tokyo Big Sight Convention Center in Tokyo November 25-28, was, to many, somewhat of a disappointment. The effects of the worldwide economic crisis appeared to have taken their toll on participation and attendance.

But from my point of view, things were quite different.  There was the fun of traveling to an exotic city, seeing all the different sights, experiencing the subways and noodle cafes and all the wonderful tastes and smells. There was the pleasure of meeting new people, talking about robotics and seeing the robots do their stuff.  And it was a terrific learning experience.  On the other hand, except for hobbyists and young peoples' contests, the excitement that you normally see in the crowds as they gather around the most interesting exhibit(s) at trade shows appeared to be missing.

There were few exhibitors that I hadn't already reported upon and included in The Robot Report's database of stories and links.  Nevertheless there were many noteworthy displays, some of which are discussed below.

Here is a slideshow of my photos to give you a feel for the show, it's colors and crowds.  Slide #1, of the Statue of Liberty - Tokyo version - was taken near the convention center and had a spectacular view back across Rainbow Bridge to central Tokyo and Tokyo Tower.

Robot --> robot interaction:  Robot-robot interaction (where multiple robots work together to achieve a common goal) was featured by most of the major industrial robot manufacturers. From the programmable dancing robots to the larger arms and hands that pass things to other robots, many companies presented where they were and what they were planning to offer.  Yaskawa and Kawada's robots (shown in the slideshow) worked, danced, moved in sync and were very stylish and colorful.

Robot --> human interaction:  (The enabling interfaces so that humans and robots can communicate.)  In the area of robot-human interaction, haptics and speech processing were shown in many different booths. Nevertheless, preprogrammed routines still control most robot activities although many manufacturers presented their prototype and edutainment robots which displayed every form of communication methodology.

Arms, grippers and hands:  There were many new thinner, smaller and very flexible arms including some very capable lab robots and very stylish tabletops. Incremental improvements in arms and grippers were displayed - like the flex-pickers from ABB and Fanuc and a wide array of hand-like grippers and the very capable grippers from Kawasaki and Panasonic.  KUKA invited people to their Tokyo headquarters to see their new sleekly designed arm unit (rightmost, above).

Sensors and vision systems were everywhere. Many 3D vision units were displayed. However, real-time sensing and perception -- the conversion to and interpretation of the digital results of the sensors and vision systems -- as has been coming out of research labs around the world, was lacking at the show.

Some achievements are now almost taken for granted and omitted or minimized from the show: navigation, mobility platforms and safety systems in particular. An infrared GPS navigation system from Toyo was one of the few exceptions.

Software normalization may be necessary, but there were so many competing software systems (SRI's Karto and Willow Garage's ROS to cite two that stood out) that standardization seems a long way off.

Many companies were offering virtualization software [a very necessary step in the acceptance and use of robotic surgery devices] for manufacturing, navigation and surgeries.

Service robots of all types were displayed: fire-fighting robots, surveillance scouts, security patrol bots, pipe cleaners, receptionists, edutainers and guides, etc.  One stand-out, ripe for commercial deployment, was Sumitomo's new line of autonomous industrial cleaning robots (right).
In one of the classes, KUKA and EUROP's Rainer Bischoff said, "Technology, economics and customer demand are re-shaping the future of robotics into one of service and human interaction." These sentiments were reflected in the actions of most of the major industrial manufacturers who were showing prototypes of their future service robot products as were a few Japanese technical universities (like the University of Tokyo KobaLab's pretty android receptionist Saya).
Another interesting prototype is Mitsubishi's Wakamaru robot.  Although not available for sale to individuals, it is available for universities, research projects and companies and is promoted as the first human-size robot that can provide companionship, or function as a care-taker or house sitter.  It's capabilities are similar to the other prototypes: recharges itself, call or e-mail if it notices a problem, continuous access to the Internet, voice and face recognition, and a dictionary able to recognize 10,000 words.

Healthcare, eldercare and medical robotics: Just as Intuitive Surgical was getting Japan's FDA approval to begin selling their da Vinci systems in Japan, Japan was preparing their own entry for trials and approvals in the EU and US (see below and in the slideshow).

The show had many healthcare robots from university labs and companies at varying stages of development. Yurina's Care Robot is a fascinating device for moving disabled people from and to beds and chairs. KobaLabs displayed robotic walking assistants. There were various exoskeletons shown: one from Tokyo's Institute of Technology enabled a person to lift and carry extraordinary amounts of heavy packages.  Cyberdyne was there with their new line of rental exoskeletons. Paro and Beatbot rehabilitation robots got lots of attention.

Concluding remarks: Two stories caught my attention during the show: one reported upon a GA Tech survey which found that older adults are more amenable than younger ones -- 77% to 67% -- to having a robot "perform critical monitoring tasks that would require little interaction between the robot and the human." The findings represent a significant heads up for the eldercare robotics industry and appeared to be reflected at iREX2009.

The second story, from the Atlantic, suggested that robotic takeover of repetitive, dull, dirty and dangerous jobs is having a serious impact on America's unskilled labor force and, combined with a continuing focus on cost-cutting and productivity increases, is going to have a large and continuing destabilizing effect on America's economy.

The fear of job losses, coupled with America's lack of investment in STEM education and research (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), is propelling the robotics industry to countries that already have funded robotics roadmaps designed and being implemented. In America, the roadmap was presented last February and is still being discussed. It's a long way from being funded.  President Obama has been making the rounds talking about strategic investments to help with STEM -- and many companies are getting onboard (iRobot just started a new program for the advancement of robotics knowledge) -- but will it be enough to tip the scales from the destabilizing effects suggested in the Atlantic story?  It was this pessimistic spin that was on the lips of the English speaking people I talked with. Additionally, America's lack of direction in robotics appeared to be reflected in the few American companies displaying their products at the show.

I left iREX with a bag full of robotics literature and a good feeling toward all the people I met and talked with.  I learned and saw things from the perspective of the biggest players in the field and I am grateful for the overall experience. And I'm anxious to return... I was so busy that I didn't have time to see the cult movie "RoboGeisha" (which has English sub-titles)!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Optimism: A Conversation With Henrik Christensen

I met Henrik Christensen (Director Robotics and Intelligent Machines, Georgia Institute of Technology) earlier this year at International Experts Days at the Schunk factory in Hausen, Germany. His presentations and comments were business-like and focused on the numbers that make emerging products successful (large enough marketplace, serious need(s) satisfied by the new product, price comparable or less (with savings) with present methods and costs, etc.).

A few days ago we had a conversation that covered many of the current issues in robotics. Throughout the conversation, Henrik remained positive and upbeat, heralding the next few years as the tipping point for this emerging industry, particularly here in America. Of course, that's part of his current job: making robotics a key economic enabler in America. He is a significant player in the Roadmap for US Robotics presented to the Congressional Robotics Caucus earlier this year and continues to make presentations about robotics at various levels of government, encouraging cooperation and strategic funding to make things happen.

One area frequently in the news is robotic surgery. Intuitive Surgical is hot on the American stock parade. But almost 50% of the di Vinci surgical machines are not working at their capacity because many doctors don't have the skills to make them work for them. For example, one proctologist used to take 2-3 hours for a procedure that he now does using the di Vinci in 30-40 minutes. But many more proctologists take 3-6 hours (and after 4 or 5 hours it becomes somewhat dangerous to the patient). After giving it a few tries, they go back to their normal way. For them it's a matter of income - they can do more procedures in the old way and time. [There are new devices being reviewed by the FDA from Japan, Korea and the EU which, unless something is done, will also become underutilized.]

Henrik says there's a major case for simulation training and two of the companies that do airline simulation are working on moving into that area as are major programs at the University of Michigan, SimuLab and Immersion. Right now Intuitive Surgical only gives a four-hour training course on their machine. Airline pilots have to invest hundreds of hours in training and retraining. The Captain and officers of the new cruise ship Oasis of the Seas spent 500+ hours of simulation time before ever stepping aboard the ship! Henrik sees not only a growing need for such simulation training but the economics that can make such an industry work and be profitable.

Industrial robots are engineering wonders that are extremely precise, mechanically intricate and last forever... which is part of their expense. To reduce those costs, manufacturers are making their machines more flexible, safer, human friendly and less exacting. Rodney Brooks' new start-up Heartland Robotics hopes to make machines that are 20%-35% less expensive and more assistive in, as he calls it, the "as yet un-automated manufacturing" sector. This is similar to the EU project SME Robot which focused on small and medium manufacturers and their requirements for flexible and quick shop assistance.

One "as yet un-automated" sector is warehouse fulfillment, an area where Kiva Systems has been so successful that it can't keep up with its orders. Amazon and all the other big mail-order processors are in need of products similar to the Kiva system but unique to their specific methods. It's an area ripe for innovation and one in which Henrik sees many things happening as early as early 2010.

One area where the economics aren't right yet for commercialization appears to be in therapeutic and eldercare assistive robotics. The research and equipment have yet to find their niche, yet the needs exist with autistic children and people with strokes and other disabilities and eldercare needs. The economic model to make saleable products with today's state of the art research and products just doesn't presently exist.

Finally we talked about the need for regional incubators to foster start-up companies -- to help them make the big switch from research engineers to marketing and management executives and to focus on helping customers do their jobs better with robotic equipment.

Henrik wants to tie research grants to real needs which, if he is able to get an agreement from the government to make strategic investments as is done by DARPA and now ARPA-E, will pay off and make robotics a key economic enabler in America.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bossa Nova Robotics Introduces Two New Products

I know nothing about robotic toys. Nevertheless I was invited to a presentation two days ago at Carnegie Mellon's Robotic Institute where Bossa Nova Robotics, a CMU spin-off, presented their new Prime-8 and Penbo toys. The toys took many years and product iterations to complete because Bossa Nova's surveys indicated a $99 or lower price point and transforming the intricate technology (hardware and software) to match that price was the primary reason for the delay. Both toys are mobile, interactive, vocal, and have a repertoire of games and remote control options. Penbo, a fuzzy penguin-like robot, sings, dances, cuddles and communicates with her baby, which she carries in a front compartment. Prime-8 is more vigorous with loud sounds age-appropriate to his 8-12 year old comrades (he even farts!).

What attracted me to the Bossa Nova launch was the science and the process -- but what sells toys is entirely different. The science in this case was CMU and DARPA's RHex, a six legged robot capable of multi-terrain exploration and patterned after the locomotion of the cockroach where the legs adapt to various terrains faster than the neural system.

Bossa Nova Concepts has taken CMU's multi-million dollar HRex research and developed it into a bi-pedal product (instead of the original six legs) and reduced costs to a toy's pricing ($99 retail). They raised funds from Innovation Works, Wellspring Worldwide, Eckhart Seamons and The Technology Collaborative and took four years of intensive research to come to market with their first products. Describing the technology and process were Bossa Nova's CEO Martin Hitch and co-founder Sarjoun Skaff. Bossa Nova provided the engineering and design and Jetta Manufacturing, a Chinese rep based in Hong Kong, is providing the product and packaging.

But that's where science and value engineering leave the scene and kid psychology, focus groups, and marketing enter. The toy industry is changing dramatically with video games leading the way and expanding expectations. Although robotic toys are holding their own, they too have to continuously find "cool" from the research labs and entrepreneurs that take technology and transition it to the streets and into households, literally letting people experience robotic technology at an affordable price.

Bossa Nova attempted to build a single toy utilizing their new bi-pedal locomotion technology only to find that boys and girls had different expectations and needs. Younger girls (4-6) wanted a touchy-feely interactive device that was cuddly and appealing; slightly older boys (8-12) wanted their toys to be interactive, action-oriented and physical. Girls didn't care about remote control or autonomous operation; boys did. Thus Bossa Nova had to come up with two different products and two unique marketing schemes with the sole common denominator of the bi-pedal locomotion system.

I researched the net for similar or competing robotic toys and found the Robini-i to be somewhat similar in audience and capabilities to the $99 Prime-8. The Robini-i is already selling in the international market for $249 and the South African company Robonica will have products in US stores this September; Prime-8 will be available July 25th from QVC and shortly thereafter online from Amazon. Femisapien, a WowWee product, $59-$99, has worldwide market penetration and appears comparable but not as fuzzy and cute as Penbo which will sell for $69 and be available from QVC mid-August and online from Amazon about the same time.

We were encouraged to have a hands-on experience with Prime-8 and Penbo during the presentation. A man and his son (who appeared to be about 7 years old) walked through and stopped to watch us play. The boy watched and smiled. Somebody offered him the remote controller for one of the Prime-8s and he began to explore and play. He smiled and experimented and periodically looked back at his father with a happy look and then continued playing. At some point, without apparent signals from his father, after about 15 minutes of play, he handed the controller back to an adult, grabbed his father's hand and they walked away. From my minimal experience with toys and kids, he passed the 2-minute test with flying colors!

Preceding the product demo was an intro to CMU's Robotics Institute by Director Matt Mason and a tour of one of CMU's three research labs which house over 500 researchers. In the one we were at on the main campus (the lab was recovering from recent flood damage), were CMU and Astrobiotic's entry into Google's $20 million Lunar X Challenge, a robotic apple and orange picker, and various other works in progress. CMU's Robotics Institute is a spin-off from CMU's Computer Sciences Department which, coincidentally and adjacent to the Robotics Institute, was completing construction of a sparkling new complex to be named the Bill Gates Computer Science Center.

From a business point of view, entering the toy industry is a tough proposition; not for the weak at heart. I've read that the robotic toy segment of the toy industry is anticipated to grow to over $11 billion by 2015 with the majority of sales driven by children's robots. Further, robot toys are what most kids wish for (especially boys). Nevertheless, it's a tough task to get shelf space particularly in a down and price-driven market. Johan Poolman, President of competing robotic toy start-up Robonica says: "Technology has played one of the biggest roles in altering the play patterns of children – technology products that don’t address the modern infatuation with anything PC and online will be unlikely to have the staying power to break through the short term fad barrier." Harder still is the process of transforming expensive robotic technology into colorful, interactive and low-cost devices that children want to play with. Bossa Nova Robotics seems poised to meet those challenges with their two new products and their ambitious plans for the future.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dow turns positive for '09; NASDAQ up 18%; US Robo-Stox™ trail

Robo-Stox™, a compilation of worldwide publically traded stocks in the robotics industry and presented on The Robot Report, clearly show that America is losing the race in robotics except in two areas: medical/surgical and defense/security.

Robotics stocks in Korea, Japan and Europe are outperforming American stocks and the NASDAQ.


PPIP’s. Public, Private Investment Partnerships focused on robotic growth where it will do the most good.

Korea is two years into an aggressive plan to invest $1 billion in order to be #1 in the worldwide robotics industry by 2018 and they’re spending $100 million each year in that pursuit.

Japan has many PPIPs focused on enabling the elderly to remain independent as long as possible thereby reducing healthcare cost and providing a better life for its citizens with robotics.

Europe has many PPIPs. One, which just concluded, focused on the robotic needs of small and medium-sized manufacturers. Yet when American educators from the major US tech universities presented their roadmap for our robotics industry before Congress last month, their suggestions for manufacturing had already been researched and reflected in the EU’s SME Robot Initiative. We are that far behind!

Worse, to date there’s been just one story about the presentation before Congress, and not a single published quote on the subject from any of the members of the Robotics Caucus. It's an interesting and illuminating read and I invite you download the PDF file and read it.

America desperately needs public/private partnerships to foster it's robotics industry or this budding business will go the way of the original American robot manufacturer: from Detroit to Japan.

Details and links for all the information above can be found in The Robot Report, a free website dedicated to tracking the business of robotics. The founder of a leading robotics company said about The Robot Report: “...your site has been a mainstay of my presentations. It shows next-generation robotics as ‘a real business and not just a big playground.’”

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Conversation with Chris

I had an informative conversation with a recent LinkedIn acquaintance that I'd like to share. It began in answer to his question:
Just curious, your profile says, "Because I believe that robotics is the next big thing..." What do you envision, in terms of "next big thing"?
I responded:
Robotics, in all its interdisciplinary forms, will be everywhere very soon. In our homes, cars and appliances. At the hospital and in the workplace. Protecting us from afar. It's happening fast but not like in the movies. In America and Europe, it'll be in advanced embedded interactive systems like adaptive cruise control that now handles lane boundaries and will soon handle trucks and busses unmanned in controlled lanes; or in Kiva style warehouses (no fixed shelving; few pick & pack people; heavy computer control); or in smaller and smaller interactive medical devices.

In Japan and Korea, more humanoid-looking robots will be used for personal and factory assistants and we'll all be using exoskeletons of one type or another such as the ones being used for Japan's seniors to help them garden or Honda's factory workers who squat, climb and lift.

It's truly amazing and just beginning to get into stride. Worldwide defense spending is paying for the R&D and smart guys like Rodney Brooks are commercializing that R&D.

My interest is in finding either (or both) a basket of stocks of robotic companies that will rise in price or helping fund a select few companies in need of management, marketing and money to grow.

What do you think?
And then came this wide-ranging informative response that I found particularly illuminating:
When I was younger, I had the good fortune to witness/participate in this same dynamic in the computer industry, WANG Laboratories, Atex, Computervision (located in the same building that iRobot is in, Bedford now) and Sun Microsystems. 

While I didn't realize what I was part of and witnessing at the time; it was a technological Darwinism that was unfolding with incremental technical breakthroughs that were being applied, somewhat haphazardly, achieving momentary commercial success and were quickly "leapfrogged" by a new company down the street, often with the same players. Although none of those companies and many others like them are around today, the relatively mature and stable PC we're both using has individual components (soft and hard), developed by those players and their technological derivatives; owing to materials and other advances. 

Now I'm older, I realize what I was seeing then but adding a bit of experience and now seeing that in the case of robotics and many other advances; that relatively short period of success that the individual computer players enjoyed will be even shorter for this field. This leapfrog speed is and will be much faster. But, I'm reminded that to this day there are significant numbers of DEC and WANG servers still running vast arrays of applications, many for the government and others for many of the large institutions. The installed user base as it were. 

So, what might this mean for robotics? If we look at the practical application of robotics, it will be interdisciplinary as you say and much of it is taking place in all the salient ways you mentioned.  While all of those are viable and happening, it's the medical applications that most come to mind as immediate and timely candidates. Rodney Brooks is a great salesman but while his automated floor sweeping and gutter cleaning toys capture the public imagination, its his investment in things like MAKO Surgical that really demonstrate the potential for robotics (hardware-wise). 

Take any high skilled operation in medicine, dentistry, exams, etc. study it carefully and you'll find that the operation can be mechanically fixtured and simplified via robotics which will do what they are truly best suited for, namely precision and repeatability. So envision going into a dentist for a root canal and instead of having an overpaid technician pounding in your mouth, using the same primitive tools that I use to file down a piece of aluminum; instead you sit and bite down on a universal, sterilized fixture that is ergonomically designed, and an "operator" is sitting in front of you, precisely directing the root canal "robot" via joystick/camera and or pre-canned software routines to effect all the physical force and position functions. Maybe it's mobile and can go to the patient in some remote areas, "affordable root canals for all." Perhaps this highly paid operator is making $ 60/hour so a root canal costs $600 rather than $ 2000. Further, it's repeatable every time. So the quality, repeatability, low cost, accessibility, etc. all combine as customer needs are met. Other examples exist and they will be found wherever we have a highly skilled operator operating high value equipment or carrying a highly specialized body of knowledge in his head. These are the applications that one might fund, (this paragraph long business plan, may or may not be the best example of it) but a good paradigm is to think of a skilled machinist versus a CNC milling machine. We've got very few skilled machinists today but we machine parts faster, cheaper and with much higher quality and repeatability. 

So envision an installed user base of this machine across the country, in some percentage of dental clinics and pretty soon we can quantify the commercial value. That’s not to negate the commercial potential of mundane consumer applications mind you. 
I think you're on the right track about the trend, as long as you focus on the substance and not the Hollywood hype, (terminator looking robots or the Kabuki Dancing dolls the Japanese trot out every year or so). The applications are happening all around us and from my perspective, one of the reasons were not moving faster is because some of the guys driving these things are coming out of University laboratories and feel it's important that they re-invent every nut and bolt, lacking practical experience in integration; rather than focusing on that one unique thing that they have developed, (perhaps a faster algorithm, a smaller/cheaper feedback device, wireless power transmission, etc. etc.). 
If you visit Heartland Robotics website and go into the manufacturers’ survey link; you’ll see by the questions on that potential end user survey that the graduate student who put that question list together has never been within a mile of a factory, let alone understand what the factory floor may or may not need from a transformational concept like universal robotics. We sort of have solutions looking for problems in that regard. 

To be fair to the academics and apologizing for my industrial bias here, there is some significant IP that will/is being developed as fresh eyes accidentally reinvent the “bolt”, material advances, etc. but it is taking the applications much longer to be developed. There's quite a bit of empowering technology already abundantly and cheaply available but it's not being applied, I think. That's not to say this isn't exciting stuff both technically and commercially, but much of it is still at the parlor trick stage as they agonize over things that have long ago been solved in industry. 

Sorry for the long reply but this is an area I'm interested and have a bit of experience in and maybe I can help you and your group identify/evaluate some of these opportunities from a technology perspective or add value in other ways. 

I'm not sure that I can help with the stock picks approach as I've long ago stopped riding up and down elevators in the Hancock Building listening to shills and I'm confident your grapevine is better than mine but if you're evaluating funding requests, perhaps I can add my two cents worth on the technology/assessment vs. what’s already available or maybe even evaluate the viability of what's proposed from a technical/architectural perspective. 
What do you think?