IEEE-USA President's Column
Robotics: Intriguing Students, Bolstering
Manufacturing and Saving Lives
Russell Lefevre, Ph.D.
2008 IEEE-USA President
technology has for the past several years had an
increasingly positive effect on our lives and
lifestyles. New applications are appearing
almost daily. For example, robotic medical
technology allows physicians to perform very
complicated surgery with minimal invasion of the
body; robotic vacuum cleaners help to clean our
homes and offices; and the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency has staged
long-distance robotic vehicle contests over
desert terrain. I could go on and on.
William Wulf, who recently finished serving as
president of the National Academy of
Engineering, observed that perhaps robotics
could help the United States improve
manufacturing techniques so that more of the
value-added engineering could remain in this
country. Using Dr. Wulf's ideas as a guide,
IEEE-USA began to work with the IEEE Robotics
and Automation Society to help educate our
legislators on the importance of the technology
to our nation's future.
robotics industry is a more than $10 billion
enterprise worldwide, with a growth rate
estimated to be about 8 percent annually. It has
the potential to improve our quality of life
and, as Dr. Wulf suggests, could help reverse
the downward spiral in domestic manufacturing, a
sector of the economy that accounts for 11
percent of U.S. employment. Robots have further
played a significant role in increased
is also playing an important role in homeland
security and defense by keeping highly trained
soldiers out of harm's way and providing
persistent surveillance in harsh environments,
ultimately reducing loss of life. Ground robots
are helping fight the war in Iraq, serving as
the troops' eyes and ears, neutralizing
explosive devices and performing inspections.
Unmanned air vehicles have proved to be an
invaluable tool for scouting and reconnaissance.
while Japan, Korea, and the European community
have aggressive national plans to promote their
competitiveness in robotics, the United States
has no such strategy. Many fundamental
achievements in robotics were developed in U.S.
laboratories, but lack of government funding is
risking American leadership in robotics
research. We are falling behind Asia and Europe
in robotics applications in the manufacturing
sector and risk losing our leadership service
sector applications, too.
address these issues, Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.)
and Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) established the
bi-partisan Congressional Robotics Caucus [www.roboticscaucus.org]
in June of 2007. I'm pleased to say that
IEEE-USA, working with the Robotics and
Automation Society, played a role in its
formation and serves as a member of the caucus'
Advisory Committee. The group acts as a resource
for caucus members on the state of robotics
technology and key issues facing the robotics
industry. The committee also hosts regular
briefings for members of Congress, their staffs,
the media and those interested in the field.
Robotics Caucus held its first event on Capitol
Hill in February of this year, and members of
the Robotics and Automation Society
participated. The event was designed to raise
awareness of the opportunities, challenges and
benefits of investing in robotics technology. It
also highlighted research and development
initiatives and future opportunities. Reps.
Doyle and Wamp spoke about the importance of the
technology, particularly in saving lives on the
battlefield. Highlights included demonstrations
of robots and discussions about the important
work they're already doing.
capture the imagination of young and old alike.
More than mere toys, robots are being used to
motivate students and pique their interest in
engineering. The FIRST Robotics
Competition, founded by IEEE member, inventor
and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, challenges teams of
students to build their own robots. During the
six-week competition, students discover how
interesting engineering can be.
witnessed the excitement firsthand at a
competition in Grand Forks, N.D. Perhaps as many
as several hundred IEEE members volunteered to
organize and support the regional and national
competitions. Recently IEEE Region 2 presented
an award to Gary Kumnik for his 15 years of
effort on the Pittsburgh Robotic Car Race.
is entering a big growth phase. As Bill Gates
said in the December 2006 online issue of
Scientific American, the emergence of the
robotics industry "is developing in much the
same way that the computer business did 30 years
ago." We can expect a future in which robots are
"a nearly ubiquitous part of our day-to-day
lives," just as the personal computer is
ubiquitous in today's society. See
the industry means job opportunities for IEEE
members, with the promise of working on new and
meaningful projects. We must ensure that our
nation remains globally competitive as the
robotics industry rapidly expands and begins to
exert a profound effect on the way we live.
We, as a
nation, can participate in this expansion or
simply stand idly by as other hungrier and more
aggressive nations seize this opportunity.
IEEE-USA plans to continue to promote these
activities and help lead the way.
29 September 2011
Contact: Chris McManes,