Coalition Aims to Fortify MA Robotics Cluster, Turn Town into Test Bed

Massachusetts wants your robots. Local companies and universities are organizing an “innovation hub” that includes a startup incubator, educational programs, and potentially a whole town to test self-driving cars and drone package delivery in real-world conditions.

Central to the effort is MassRobotics, a non-profit designed to grow the robotics industry by fostering collaboration between academia, startups, investors, government, and established companies, say people involved in the organization.

Plans call for an incubator in the Alewife area of Cambridge where startups will get access to shared office services as well as equipment such 3-D printers for quickly making prototypes, says Tom Hopcroft, the CEO of the Mass Technology Leadership Council (Mass TLC). Healthcare company Vecna, which has offices at Alewife and makes delivery robots for hospitals, and Draper Labs are taking the lead on establishing the incubator.

In addition to providing workspace for startups, the incubator will be an academic lab, a community maker space, and provide education to children and adults, according to Mass TLC. “It’s a very ambitious set of things we want to pull together,” says Hopcroft. “But if you think about the ecosystem, I don’t think anybody in the world has 35 research and development labs in one area—the R&D capability here is immense.”

Another part of the puzzle is the New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) center at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, which provides facilities to test the mobility of ground robots in different terrains, such as climbing steep ramps or driving through sand. The state also has facilities to test air and water robotic vehicles.

In a separate initiative, organizers are hoping to make the town of Devens, MA, into a test bed for robotic devices. The town was once a military base but now is under state control, which simplifies permitting, Hopcroft said. It also has a wide range of facilities, such as an airstrip, and different environments, including woods and a town.

“If you want to start testing drone delivery and whether that operates well with an autonomous fire truck and mail delivery so they’re not crashing into each other, you need to test that in real environment,” Hopcroft said.

At a reception for robotics professionals at the Nerve center in Lowell earlier this week, the people I spoke to about MassRobotics said that the state has good resources, but needs more concerted efforts to reap the economic benefits from emerging robotic technologies. In a statement about MassRobotics, Vecna notes that some talent from the state has been lost to the west coast.

Marlborough, MA-based ReWalk, which makes an exoskeleton to help disabled people walk, came to the Boston area from Israel because of the local talent and because the state effectively supported his plans to move here, says CEO Larry Jasinski. He intends to use the testing center at Lowell. “It’s easier than building the testing ourselves which is what we did last time,” he said.

The planned funding model for MassRobotics is through corporations, which would pay fees or provide infrastructure, such as office space. An official announcement of MassRobotics is expected in a few weeks.

The idea for MassRobotics came about when Rodney Brooks, the founder of Rethink Robotics, was visiting Vecna CTO Daniel Theobald. Brooks looked at facilities and suggested they’d make a good incubator space, says Theobald, who has been one of the leaders in the effort.

Theobald sees the creation of a robotics hub in Massachusetts as critical to not just the local economy but the world. “The future of the world economy will ride on the backs of robots,” he says. “Bringing together and applying robotics to help move the human race forward rather than backward is hugely important.”

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