Conference highlights robot industry

U reps. attended and helped sponsor the Robotic Alley Conference.

by Rebecca Harrington


While some perceive them as enemies and others as toys, robots have come a long way since their mainstream debut in 1950s science fiction.

Recent developments in robotics were on display at the second annual Robotics Alley Conference held in Edina, Minn., on Thursday. More than 400 people and 30 exhibitors attended, including representatives from the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering and Office of Business Relations, both of which helped sponsor the event.

Over the past 20 years, robotics has quietly become a billion-dollar industry in the United States.

Alan Bignall, CEO of the conference’s host company, ReconRobotics Inc., said robots represent a new frontier in business and technology.

“Robotics, I think, is the next revolutionary shift,” he said. “The Internet was really the last one. This will be the next one because it takes advantage of the Internet and the new technologies.”

Bignall founded the company in 2006 after licensing a University invention. The University’s Center for Distributed Robotics developed scout robots that are used by militaries and police departments in more than 30 countries to scope out dangerous areas.

 Aimee Barmore, director of law enforcement and federal programs for ReconRobotics, said this shift in helpful robotics will be at the heart of the industry’s future.

“They’re taking over the world,” she said, “in a good way. They’re helping people.”

The robots

The Westin Galleria in Edina was filled with the characteristic robot sound: a high-pitched, whizzing hum.

The University’s Robotic Sensor Networks Lab showcased its carp-tracking boat robot. Doctoral candidate Josh Vander Hook said the lab is partnering with a lab in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences for the project. He said he chose to come to the University specifically for this project.

“It’s unique because we’re working with biologists,” he said. “We’re solving a real world problem.”

An all-girl FIRST LEGO League robotics team was also in attendance. The “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” organization hosts robotics competitions and programs for K-12 students.

For this year’s competition, the sixth-grade girls had to identify and solve a problem that senior citizens face. They came up with a shower mat with sensors that identifies if someone falls down and alerts help.

Team member Ashley Arend said a sensor expert from the University offered them advice at the

“He told us what sensor to put in the mat to actually make it work,” she said.

With more than 300,000 students participating in FIRST competitions worldwide, the robotics industry’s future is growing.

“This is a dream job,” Bignall said. “You’re saving lives; you’re creating jobs; you’re making a lot of money. That’s America.”