We, Robot: The Greater Boston Robotics Cluster

OK, we’re big on robots around here. From iRobot’s landmark court case to Kiva’s shuffling warehouse bots, from the FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology) high-school robot competition to Hydroid’s Navy contract for robot submarines, we’ve been covering the business of bots in depth and on the ground since our inception. And why’s that?

Well, for one thing, robots are just cool. They capture our imagination like few other technologies do. Robots are R2-D2 saving the day, the Terminator delivering one-liners in an Austrian accent, and Iron Man flying through the air, guns ablaze. It’s why anyone ever got into the business in the first place.

What’s more, the greater Boston area has clearly established itself as one of the world’s leading centers for robotics. There are more than 150 companies, institutions, and research labs that deal in robots or robot components here. That adds up to more than 1,500 workers, $150 million in government contracts, and $250 million in annual sales, according to the official state organization presiding over it all—the Massachusetts Robotics Cluster, which is a subgroup of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, a non-profit that fosters entrepreneurship and promotes tech companies.

Not that it’s necessarily a boom time for robotics firms. Everywhere you look, budgets are tight. “It’s a bit tough for early stage companies,” says Paul Coster, an analyst at JPMorgan who watches iRobot. “Very few have viable business models.” To be successful in today’s climate, he adds, it’s becoming more important “to roll up and come to market with a proven model.”

With this state of the robotics union firmly in mind, we wanted to provide the definitive local guide. Following our stories on the greater Boston Internet video cluster and the hidden hub of music and technology, we wanted to track down every commercial outfit doing significant work in robotics—everything from mobile to medical robots, software to hardware, electromechanics to exoskeletons. We drew the line if the company made sensors, electronics, or energy sources that could be used by robots, but did not focus primarily on robot products.

Looking at the list, a few things leapt out at us. The majority of firms (at least 13 out of 24) get substantial support from defense contracts, while most others serve niche markets. Local companies are strong in mobile robots and vehicles, growing in medical robots, and not as strong in industrial applications. We’ve also included a couple of non-companies—organizations that we feel are making a direct impact on the industry. But this is by no means a comprehensive list. If we’ve missed something, please leave us a comment below or drop us a note at editors@xconomy.com.

We’re also working on putting together a networking event to bring the local robotics community together to talk about the pressing issues, and maybe raise a few of our own—like what are the potentially transformative applications for robots in society that nobody is thinking of? In the meantime, enjoy our guide…

Aurora Flight Sciences
Cambridge, MA
Vertical take-off unmanned aerial vehicles for defense and aerospace applications. The company is headquartered in Manassas, VA, but established an R&D center in Kendall Square in 2005.

Barrett Technology
Cambridge, MA
Best known for its WAM (Whole-Arm Manipulation), a state-of-the-art robotic arm, used for rehabilitation and manufacturing applications such as spray-painting. It might even be used to help repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Barrett began in 1990 as a spinoff of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab.

Black-I Robotics
Tyngsborough, MA
Incorporated in 2006, Black-I develops unmanned ground vehicles for security and defense. Its robots have been tested by the Massachusetts State Police bomb squad at Logan Airport for detecting and disrupting car bombs.

Cambridge, MA
Autonomous underwater vehicles for detecting surface mines, and other defense applications using sonar and hydrophones. The company was spun out of MIT in 1997, and became a subsidiary of Battelle Memorial Institute in 2005.

Boston Dynamics
Cambridge, MA
Founded in 1992 out of MIT, Boston Dynamics focuses on human movement simulations and legged robots that can walk and run over rough terrain. A recent YouTube video of the company’s remarkable Big Dog quadruped robot has attracted millions of viewers—and generated a hilarious parody. … Next Page »

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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