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Friday, Jun 14, 2024
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From Commercial to Defense, Region Welcomes Robots

San Diego has been quietly preparing for its future as a robotics hub.

Scientists at the U.S. Navy lab on Point Loma have long been working on machines that crawl and swim to help sailors and Marines do their jobs. The public, however, sees little of this work. Similarly, Northrop Grumman Corp. (NYSE: NOC) designs its autonomous military aircraft behind closed doors in North County.

More recently, 3D Robotics has been designing and building small flying machines for commercial use, while 5D Robotics (no relation) has been taking on complex Defense Department and commercial projects. San Diego’s biggest company, Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM), sees robotics as perhaps the next big thing for its business.

The robot space is a desirable place to be. BI Intelligence, the research arm of publisher Business Insider Inc., estimates there will be a $1.5 billion market for consumer and business robots by 2019. The company’s Robotics Market Report describes a market that will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 17 percent between 2014 and 2019.

The robotics field is vast, covering drones, autonomous cars and the Internet of Things. San Diego might become a player in all of those fields.

A big driver in the robotics sector this year will be the University of California, San Diego.

In October, the university announced the formation of its Contextual Robotics Institute, which will be a joint project of its engineering school and its division of social sciences. With the social sciences twist, the university will investigate how robots might function better with human beings.

The interest in robotics goes to the very top: Pradeep Khosla, UC San Diego’s chancellor since 2012, has a research interest in robotics.

In announcing the new institute, university officials said UC San Diego employs experts in more than a dozen technologies for robot subsystems — including artificial intelligence, batteries, electronic actuators and new materials.

Crossing the Border

Businesses from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border can help grow the region’s robotics sector, said Albert

Pisano, dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering. 3D Robotics is already manufacturing in Tijuana.

Robots could well become part of San Diego’s medical device market. Among the engineers who recently arrived at UC San Diego to bolster the robotics program is Michael Yip. At a recent conference, Yip showed a robot that has the shape of a snake — and the moves of a snake. It has potential applications in surgery, and has even navigated inside a beating heart.

Robots have left the pages of pulp fiction and moved onto the factory floor. They are already in the home. Think of the Roomba vacuum cleaner.

San Diegans may well have a say in what the next generation of home robot looks like.

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