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U.S. risks falling behind in robotics without coordinated national strategy

In an era where robotics and automation are reshaping industries worldwide, the United States finds itself at a critical juncture, lacking a centralized industrial policy to drive innovation and deployment of these transformative technologies. This concerning reality is highlighted in the 2024 edition of "A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics: Robotics for a Better Tomorrow," a quadrennial set of recommendations produced and sponsored by institutions led by the University of California, San Diego.



Unlike countries such as China, Germany, or Japan, which have well-coordinated national strategies, the U.S. finds itself hampered by a lack of strong collaboration among academia, government, and industry, according to Henrik I. Christensen, the main editor of the roadmap and a prominent figure in the field of robotics.

Christensen, the Qualcomm Chancellor's Chair of Robot Systems and a distinguished professor at UC San Diego, paints a mixed picture of the nation's progress in robotics. While the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated interest in areas like e-commerce, supply chain automation, and eldercare, government support has been uneven, with initiatives like the National Robotics Initiative sunsetting and the Congressional Caucus on Robotics falling dormant since 2019.

Moreover, the recent surge in attention toward artificial intelligence (AI) has cast a shadow over robotics, with staffers from the Congressional AI Caucus having previously attended robotics caucus meetings. Christensen emphasizes that robotics represents the intersection where AI meets reality, and without a dedicated robotics initiative, there is a lack of interagency coordination and focused investment.

Despite the presence of corporations, academic departments, and agencies like DARPA and NASA investing in robotics research and development, Christensen calls for better coordination and direction of available programs toward more widespread industrial and commercial use.

The U.S. startup climate in robotics has also faced challenges, with venture capital becoming harder to secure in recent years and interest rates making it more difficult to obtain funding. Last year, U.S. industrial automation saw a 30% decline, highlighting the need for increased investment in infrastructure and facilities.

Christensen believes that the second half of the year could see a resurgence in robotics, driven by factors like the reshoring of manufacturing and warehousing operations to address workforce shortages. However, he emphasizes the need for a concerted effort in retraining the workforce and emphasizing the importance of robotics education at trade schools.

The roadmap underscores the pressing need for the U.S. to regain its leadership in robotics, a position it has lost in recent years. Once a top-four consumer of industrial robots and a leader in service robotics, the U.S. has fallen out of the top 10 in industrial robot consumption, and the future of its only household name in robotics, iRobot, remains uncertain after a failed deal with Amazon.

Christensen calls for the federal government to play a more active role, stressing the need for a revitalized Congressional Robotics Caucus and increased collaboration between academia, industry, and policymakers. He points to the example of Odense, Denmark, where a strategic investment in a robotics ecosystem led to the formation of companies like Universal Robots and Mobile Industrial Robots, positioning the city as the capital of robotics in Europe.

As nations like Australia launch their own National Robotics Strategy, the U.S. risks falling further behind if it fails to adopt a coordinated approach to robotics policy and investment. The roadmap serves as a wake-up call for the nation to prioritize robotics as a critical enabler of economic growth and technological leadership, lest it cede ground to competitors on the global stage.

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