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Conference: Michigan’s Robotics Future Bright

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WWJ Photo/Matt Roush

WWJ Photo/Matt Roush

ANN ARBOR (WWJ) – Robotics offers a major opportunity to rebuild Michigan’s manufacturing infrastructure, according to speakers at the Michigan Robotics Day celebration in Ann Arbor Tuesday.

Whether the setting is defense, manufacturing, medicine or consumer uses, robots are becoming more and more common, and that trend will only accelerate in the years ahead, speakers said.

For Michigan, robotics is “something that not only do we have a good track record in, but we can really power up in, into a new generation,” according to Rick Jarman, NCMS president and CEO.

“In this new world, robots are the must-have tool, on the battlefield, in the operating room, on the factory floor, and increasingly, sweeping up the family room,” Jarman said. “The manufacturing plant of the future is likely to be dominated by increasingly complex robots. The skills are already here in Michigan. It’s a real opportunity for us.”

Jarman said the NCMS is home to a Robotics Technology Consortium with 200 member companies, who want to reach out with offers of robotics business to smaller, nontraditional companies.

Keynote speaker Jim Overholt, the United States Army’s Warren-based Chief Scientist for Robotics, said the armed services have been experimenting with robots for more than 50 years. He opened his presentation with vintage video of a 1957 radio-controlled robot powered by a two-cycle gasoline engine, called Little David, that was eyed for everything from an unmanned weapons platform to a materials transport.

Overholt used several science fiction movies as examples of the future potential of robotics. He mercilessly mocked “I, Robot,” but said it offered several interesting ideas, including the concept of shared driving, where the driver can choose to drive the car or let the car drive the car, with a seamless transition.

The Tom Cruise film “Minority Report” had several other ideas, including capacitive touch screens, swarms of small robots, facial recognition technology, and intelligent highways. He said his command is now working with an Ann Arbor company, Quantum Signal, on controlling a swarm of small robots from long distances, the way unmanned aircraft are today controlled from thousands of miles away.

Overholt said the Army’s eventual goal is to reduce the number of staff required to support a robot, ideally to zero.

He said robots are being developed for everything from remote driving of supply convoys to small robots to explore “the last 100 yards” between soldiers and contact with an enemy — especially in building-to-building urban warfare.

Later speakers described advances in industrial and medical robots. Bob Rochelle of Wixom-based Kawasaki Robotics Inc. described a bright future for factory robots, while Dr. David L. Felten, vice president and medical director of research at Beaumont Hospital, described the medical robots of the future. Eventually, he said, robots will perform surgery without surgeons’ control. And he also envisioned nanorobots that will be injected into people to do everything from repair DNA to detect and destroy individual cancer cells.

Michigan Robotics Day continued Tuesday afternoon with demonstrations of robots from the University of Michigan and FIRST Robotics high school teams.

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