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IEEE-USA President's Column

JUNE 2008

Russell Lefevre, Ph.D.
2008 IEEE-USA President

Robotics: Intriguing Students, Bolstering Manufacturing and Saving Lives

Robotics 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.

Dr. 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.

The 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 manufacturing efficiency.

Robotics 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.

However, 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.

To help address these issues, Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) and Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) established the bi-partisan Congressional Robotics Caucus [] 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.

The 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.

Robots 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.

I 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.

Robotics 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

Growth in 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.

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Updated:  29 September 2011
Contact: Chris McManes,


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