By Rick Sobey
LOWELL -- Thousands of miles away in intense environments, robots are exploring Afghan caves and removing explosive devices in Iraq. They can also be down the street with a local police department, investigating a bomb threat at a school.
And these innovative defense/security products are being developed and tested in your backyard, enhancing the local economy and reshaping the workplace, according to technology and economic leaders on Thursday.
The iRobot Corp. out of Bedford, which sells its robots to the military and police departments, was only one of many regional robotic companies that were on display at UMass Lowell's robotics center on Thursday.
"This area is the epicenter of the robotics industry, and there's so much more to happen," said Russ Campanello, senior vice president of human resources at iRobot, speaking at the university's New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center.
"The industry is only in its very first steps, and we're very excited about it continuing to grow more and more," he added.
Robot experts, local officials and economic-development groups explored the robotics industry's growth in Greater Lowell and its economic impact on the region on Thursday. Representatives of robotics companies from Middlesex County, including iRobot, Harvest Automation and MITRE Corp., discussed the region's significant contribution to Massachusetts' $1.9 billion robotics industry.
"You need a lot of open space to test robots, and this region is very conducive for testing," said Charles Grinnell, the chief operating officer at Billerica's Harvest Automation, which has developed robots that move millions of plants a year and apply chemicals to plants.
"There's a huge talent pool up here with the educational institutions and having affordable, open space is important," he added.
In addition, UMass Lowell students and companies gave robot demonstrations during "Rise of the Robots: Changing the Workplace, Changing Lives" at the NERVE Center, one of the country's most advanced testing facilities. It's the only comprehensive indoor site for robot experimentation and validation in New England, within an hour's drive of more than 80 robotics companies and 10 universities that conduct robotics research.
Local robotics companies, such as iRobot, regularly test their products at the NERVE Center, and UMass Lowell students regularly test their "Rover Hawk," a Mars rover-style robot that won a national NASA-sponsored competition this year. The testing center has a replica of a portion of the Rock Yard at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
"We couldn't take the robot outside to test it in the winter weather, so it was important to have this indoor site," said Dr. Holly Yanco, professor of computer science and NERVE Center director. "Robotics is important here at the university, and providing our courses to the companies helps push the industry forward."
This region has become the "robotics capital of the world," according to Pamela Goldberg, chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. In addition to a cluster of robotics companies, she said there are many supporting manufacturing companies and educational institutions in the area, including the NERVE Center.
"It's really a perfect storm," Goldberg said. "Before, robots had to be shipped to Texas to be tested, but now they can get tested here (at NERVE). It makes it more likely for companies to relocate here, and the talent pool is impressive here."
Other Greater Lowell robotics companies and supporting companies include Lowell's Seegrid Corporation; Billerica's InterSense, Excell Solutions, Bruker, Geartronics Industries and Newport Corp.; Tyngsboro's Black-I Robotics; Chelmsford's Brooks Automation, Whitney Systems and Mercury Computer Systems; and Bedford's iWalk, MicroE Systems and Dangel Robotics & Machinery.
The event was presented by the Merrimack Valley Venture Forum, Merrimack Valley Economic Development Council, Middlesex 3 economic development coalition and the NERVE center, located at 1001 Pawtucket Blvd.