The Robots Are Here!

By Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, November 15, 2012, 10:22 PM

I spent the day in a hotel in Edina, Minnesota cavorting with robots. The occasion was a conference put on by a group called Robotics Alley, which is a Minnesota-based "initiative . . . meant to spur public-private partnerships in the business, research and development of world-leading robotics and automation systems." The group asked me to speak about domestic drones, the FAA rulemakings on unmanned aerial systems, and---of course---the Lawfare Drone Smackdown. Had I known how many fascinating robots, and fascinating entrepreneurs and engineers who build them, would be at the event, I would have brought a proper video camera. Instead, I had to make do with my iPhone---which did tolerably well under the circumstances. Here are some images, videos and thoughts, in no particular order.

This has to be the least cost-effective---yet coolest---way of distributing candy at a party I have ever seen. I kept my eye on it off and on all day and never saw it collide with a human.

On a serious note, I spent a bit of time maneuvering the Recon Scout, a small robot made for police and military work by a company called ReconRobotics. The robot is tiny. Everything you need to operate it fits in the outer pocket of a soldier's gear.


Yet it is also incredibly versatile; soldiers or cops can simply throw it (quite literally) over a wall into a potentially hostile area and then guide it around while it sends back video---and now audio too. I've asked Andrew Borene, an executive at the company and one of the organizers of today's event, to bring one by Brookings to play with further when he's next in Washington. So I'll have more to say about this remarkable piece of technology in a couple of weeks.

Need a drone? Not like the drones we used in the Smackdown, but a really powerful drone you can launch by tossing and that can stay aloft for an hour on a pre-planned flight map? How about this one, currently being marketed to law enforcement agencies and with wide potential use in the agricultural sector. It weighs about three pounds and transmits video to the console you can see in the photo beneath the drone.

Or maybe you need a robot that will sort---really fast---large number of pills, separating them by color.

You've probably read about 3D printing. Here's an actual 3D printer---printing an object.

And then there's this, made by a company called NPC Robotics. Norm Domholt, the company's president, explains that he used to sponsor teams for the robot warfare show Battlebots, and that his company developed a lot of expertise creating highly-durable mobile platforms that took entirely modular parts that could simply be swapped out when any failed.

All in all, in was an eye-opening day. The industry is incredibly dynamic. While pervasively informed by its military roots, it is thinking hard about civilian applications---from milking cows to industrial and nuclear cleanup to entertainment and elder care. A great deal of this sort of application lies well beyond the scope of Lawfare, though it's completely fascinating in its own right. But the tight relationship between these technologies and technologies central to Lawfare make even consumer robotics almost inherently interesting to anyone who thinks seriously about robotic platforms for covert intelligence gathering and warfare. After all, it's only a little bit reductionist to say that it's all just sensors, motors and software.