Robotics key to Russia's economic and military modernization

By Bernard Casey

The symbiotic relationship between the on-line and the off-line worlds is nowhere more apparent than in the field of robotics. For, although it was advances in semiconductor physics and materials science starting in the 1970's that enabled the development of microelectronic devices that powered computers, it was actually advances in manufacturing efficiencies, primarily the deployment of industrial robotics and automation starting in the 1980's, that made such computers inexpensive and ubiquitous, thus enabling the Information Age.

And, in turn, today, a cloud-based Manufacturing Execution System (MES) running on a central enterprise IT infrastructure can be used to control all of the machines and robots in a modern automated factory. Once again, robotics has the potential to help enable another transformation involving both the on-line and off-line worlds - the modernization of Russia's economy and military.

According to Dr. Shinsuke Sakakibara, president of the International Federation of Robotics, "At the end of 2010, only about 50 robots were installed per 10,000 employees in the manufacturing industry in the world. Japan, the Republic of Korea and Germany are the most automated countries in the world with robot densities between 250 and 300. (The robot density in the US is about 125.) In contrast, less than 20 robots per 10,000 employees are in operation in the big emerging markets: China, India, Russia and Brazil. The growth in robot installations will continue to take place in the emerging markets and in North America. Robot supply to China will further surge. At least by 2014, China will surpass other countries to top the robot market worldwide regarding the annual supply."

Robot density contributes to increased labor productivity of a nation, but it is not the sole factor. According to the Japan Productivity Center's 2011 International Comparison of Labor Productivity report, Luxembourg ranked first in labor productivity (US$122,782), the US ranked third (US$102,903), Japan ranked 20th (US$68,764), Russia ranked 46th (US$38,638) and China ranked 82nd (US$11,612).

The critical link between robot density and a prosperous, modernized economy is recognized by the EU, which is directing a share of its €80 billion Horizon 2020 initiative - one of the world's biggest research and innovation budgets - towards the robotics industry. According to Khalil Rouhana, director for digital content and cognitive systems at the EU's DG INFSO, "Successful economies are those that are able to keep their industrial base modernized. Robots are the mainstream technology of the future - in our everyday life, in business and in industry."

Russia's steps towards increasing the automation of its industry are showcased at the International Forum "Russian Industrialist", held in September each year in St Petersburg, and "devoted to the most relevant matters of innovative development in national industry: machine-building and production of auto components, radio-electronics, instrument making and automation, mechatronics and robotics, development of industrial clusters of small-scale and middle business, sub-contractual relations, cooperation between specialized educational institutions and industrial enterprises in the sphere of training of high-quality personnel, etc."

Moving from industrial robotics to personal robotics, Grishin Robotics, a US$25 million investment fund founded in June by Dmitry Grishin, co-founder of Mail.Ru Group, the largest Russian Internet company, "plans to focus its investments on robotic technology that is ready for mass market implementation in the areas of home maintenance, education, healthcare, entertainment, transportation, etc." According to Grishin, "The robotics industry is uniquely positioned to leverage recent innovations made in software, Internet and smartphones, combining them to make a tremendous global impact."

According to the International Federation of Robotics, in 2010, worldwide sales of industrial robots were US$5.7 billion; worldwide sales of personal robots, US$538 million. However, the IFR expects the personal robotics market to grow to US$4.3 billion by 2014.

Furthermore, according to Adil Shafi, president of Advenovation, the 21st Century is already seeing a proliferation of service robotics, which are more broadly defined than personal robotics, and include such applications as:

  • Aerospace - Spacecraft, Satellites, and Aircraft;

  • Land - Defense, Farming, Wildlife, Food, Transportation, Outdoor Logistics, Office and Warehouse, Health: Care, Health: Rehabilitation, Health: Surgical, Entertainment, and Home Convenience; and

  • Water - Defense and Security, Research and Exploration, Preventive Maintenance, Rescue and Recovery, and Entertainment.

    Finally, robotics is also expected to play a vital role in the modernization of Russia's military capability. Earlier this month, Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Dmitry Rogozin stated that Russia's new DARPA rival, the Russian Foundation for Advanced Research Projects in the Defense Industry, would "fund the most cutting-edge areas, by which we refer to robotics, new materials, microelectronics, and hypersonic technology". It has been rumored that the Russian Foundation for AdvancedResearch Projects in the Defense Industry will have a budget of US$100 billion between now and 2020, compared with US DARPA's annual budget of US$3 billion.

    Rogozin did not indicate the specific robotic technologies to be developed by Russian Foundation for Advanced Research Projects in the Defense Industry, other than to cite unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology as an area of deficiency in Russian military science, a deficiency believed to have already been addressed by a rumored agreement with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to transfer UAV technology and construct a UAV factory. More clues can be gleaned from a comprehensive look at DARPA's research projects in the field of robotics, which include:

  • The US$2 million Robotics Challenge, in which robotics manufacturers and universities compete in a challenge of motivating DARPA's Humanoid Robot to perform specific tasks;

  • The US$50 million "Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation" program, which is developing exoskeletons or "wearable robots" that provide superhuman capabilities to the wearer;

  • The aforementioned Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), such as the Predator drone that NATO and the US are currently using to carry out systematic spying and killing, both internationally and domestically;

  • A rocket-launched Unmanned Glider designed to fly at speeds 20 times the speed of sound (Mach 20), a precursor to development of a full-scale Hypersonic X-plane within 4 years;

  • The Nano Air Vehicle (NAV), a tiny flying hummingbird spy robot that provides an unobtrusive, close-up view of targets from a safe distance;

  • The US$100 million Reliable Central Interfaces project, the main development of which is the Mind-Controlled Prosthetic Arm or "bionic arm", which links the brain to a computer to control limb movement;

  • The Mind-Eye program, also known as a "thinking camera", which integrates computer vision and artificial intelligence technology to yield visual intelligence technology; and

  • The Urban Photonic Sandtable Display (UPSD), a 3-D holographic display technology used to aid battle planners.

    Development and deployment of innovative, cutting-edge robotics will be indispensible to the continued modernization of Russia's industrial base, consumer and niche markets, and military capability. A coordinated initiative between the Government of Russia, the Russian Foundation for Advanced Research Projects in the Defense Industry, Technoparks including Skolkovo Innograd and Zelenograd ITC, private industry, universities, and the investment community is needed to maximize the success of these efforts. 

 Bernard Casey

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov