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Fears For State's Robotics Industry

This article is more than 10 years old.

Here's a quiz. What Massachusetts industry generates almost a billion dollars in sales each year and employs more than 2,500 people in more than 40 companies? Answer: Robotics.

Most of the robots used around the world are developed and made right here in Massachusetts. But the relatively new industry hasn't garnered the attention and state funding of biotech and life sciences.

Leaders in the robotics industry say the Bay State's lead is under threat from other states that want a piece of the action. WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov begins her report at a robotics factory in Waltham.

TEXT OF STORY:

BOB QUINN: We usually start the tour right here.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Bob Quinn, Vice President at QinetiQ Foster Miller stands before a gnarled heap of metal. It's a robot that was blown up by an improvised explosive device in Iraq.

BOB QUINN: With a successful robot that's done its job. Given its life for its country rather than a soldier giving his life for his country.

BRADY-MYEROV: There are almost 10,000 robots in Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost all of them are made in Massachusetts by either Foster Miller or competitor iRobot, generating a half a billion dollars in annual revenue. Quinn says the industry is an outgrowth of a large research community.

BOB QUINN: I think the reason Massachusetts is so big in the growing field of military robotics is the science and technology, the 10 universities that are able to put out a lot of students.

BRADY-MYEROV: And there are 13 labs focused on robotics. Dan Kara, President of the industry magazine Robotics Trends says the Bay State offers unique advantages.

DAN KARA: We have the investment community, we have the manufacturing base, and we have the computer base we have the research and technology. We have the robotics expertise, we have the media capability, so we have a lot of things going here.

BRADY-MYEROV: Kara says state government recognizes the potential but could to do more to drive the advantage home. Many in the industry fear the lead is under attack. Brian Hart, President and founder of Black-I Robotics in Tyngsboro, says the state isn't doing enough for small companies such as his.

BRIAN HART: They think the jobs are making bed for casinos my lowest paid person makes $100,000. They are putting all their money in the biotech but the jobs are in robotics but they just don't get it they just don't get it and by the time they figure it out it will be too late.

BRADY-MYEROV: Actually the jobs right now are in biotech — 45,000 of them. But the robotics field is at an early stage and is growing, even in this bad economy. Hart would like state help to move to a larger warehouse space. His small company also makes military robots, but he's fighting an effort from Congress to move the funding and his company to Michigan.

BRIAN HART: Our difficulty now is the money has been shifted to Michigan as part of this last defense bill and a political machination on the part of Carl Levin, so we're afraid we're going to be forced to move to Michigan to stay viable in the field.

BRADY-MYEROV: Michigan Senator Carl Levin is a key player in what's shaping up to be a robotics war. He's the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and he calls the military robotics movement miraculous. Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy is next in line on the committee. Quinn of Foster Miller says California, Pennsylvania, Georgia and especially Michigan want what Massachusetts has.

BOB QUINN: Michigan is in serious trouble as a state, and indeed Senator Levin...

BRADY-MYEROV: He reaches for a photo of the senator with him and their robot.

BOB QUINN: They are trying to duplicate what MIT and other Massachusetts universities have done to stimulate business growth.

BRADY-MYEROV: Senator Levin moved the military's robotics procurement center to Michigan. Foster Miller and iRobot have since opened offices there. iRobot which is still headquartered in Bedford is in two robotic sectors, military and service. You may have heard of one of their products, the Roomba, a self propelling vacuum cleaner.

[Sound of Roomba vacuum cleaner]

BRADY-MYEROV: iRobot Chairman and CEO Colin Angle says the company was started by MIT grads and still draws on a robust local network.

COLIN ANGLE: The Greater Boston area has a host of other related robots companies and the more this industry stays centered in this area the more we can help each other.

BRADY-MYEROV: Aside from a $240,000 training grant iRobot received from the state in July, the industry has grown largely unassisted. Meanwhile, the state is investing a billion dollars to grow the biotech and life sciences sector. The Mass Robotics Cluster, a lobbying coalition, is only three years old and is still figuring out its scope and potential.

[Sound of Talon robot]

BRADY-MYEROV: Just as this Foster Miller robot glides across the floor unassisted and gets in line with other robots heading for Iraq, the industry in Massachusetts hopes to glide into the future and stay the leader in what analysis predict will become a $10 billion field over the next ten years.

For WBUR I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.

This program aired on December 1, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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