This blog post has appeared on January 3rd, 2012 on www.feld.com:

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 RoboticsAdvanced RoboticsThings 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 iRobotHusqvarna 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!