Asked to list Boulder County’s signature industry, one first might think of natural and organic products, biopharmaceuticals, aerospace or even craft alcoholic beverages.
Increasingly, however, that conversation might get interrupted — as the robots come marching in.
The county has become fertile ground for robotics research and entrepreneurship at all levels, from high school and college education to automated products that work everywhere from our front yards to the surface of the moon.
The reasons for the influx are as varied as the tasks robots are doing.
At Longmont-based WinterWinds Robotics Inc., chief technology officer Caleb Eastman cites the area’s “good mix of talent.”
To build a good robot, he said, a company needs easy access to embedded software engineering and contract manufacturing — and Boulder County has both.
“There’s lots of people who can do low-level code, as well as people who can make both electrical and mechanical components — a lot of good machine shops in the area and good printed-circuit manufacturing. All of those are found in this area. Longmont has more of the machine-shop physical components talent, and Boulder has more software engineers.”
Eastman cited Pittsburgh, Boston and the Boulder Valley as the nation’s top centers for the robotics industry — “three areas where you can find everything you need to put a robot together,” including burgeoning artificial-intelligence sectors. But add quality of life, he added, and there’s no contest.
“It’s a desirable area,” he said. “A lot of people just like to come here. So many software engineers just wanted to live near the mountains. That’s why we have talent that has been here for a long time, and a lot of draw from other states.”
Tim Enwall, CEO of Misty Robotics, a 2017 spinoff from Boulder-based Sphero Inc., also has praised the area’s natural beauty and recreational opportunities that provide for a lifestyle that Silicon Valley can’t match.
Robotics in many ways bucks the pandemic-enhanced trend toward remote work, Eastman said. “It’s not like other industries where you can disperse your engineers all over the country, because a robot is a physical thing, and it’s hard to work on a physical robot if you’re not near it. So robotics people co-locate where the entire ecosystem is.”
Eric Schweikardt, CEO and design director at Boulder-based Modular Robotics Inc., cited the area’s world-class venture-capital generators such as the Foundry Group, which he said “has done a lot to build the ecosystem. We started with National Science Foundation grant funding, and venture financing that Foundry Group participated in.
“The area has so much interest in it,” he said. “We even participated in the Boulder Is For Robots meetup group.”
Billy Otteman, director of marketing for Boulder-based Scythe Robotics Inc., was even more effusive in what he called “the overall ethos of Boulder County.
“Boulder has always been captivating to me,” he said. “It has such a fantastic legacy of innovative and entrepreneurial thinking that goes back far before tech startups were even a thing. You look at the Chautauqua movement and the free thinkers. The Boulder scene has been around a lot longer.”
Otteman also echoed Schweikardt’s praise for Foundry Group.
“Brad Feld and his crew did the work 15 years ago to set the stage for attracting venture capital here, bringing in money and talent outside of what was typically in San Francisco, New York or Boston.”
He cited incubators such as Techstars and events such as Boulder Startup Week for nurturing “some really great startups” and facilitating “networking with different perspectives coming together, ideas that might traditionally have come out of the Silicon Valley. But today it’s easy to look at the exodus from San Francisco happening because of COVID and the cost of living. You put all that ecosystem in Boulder County, and you start to get some real-world applications.
“That set the stage for institutions, businesses and universities here who were willing to take risks.”
The University of Colorado’s Boulder campus leads that pack with one of the nation’s leading robotics research programs, both within and outside its Department of Computer Science. Its website boasts about a strong focus on human-robot interaction and collaboration, robot learning, robot perception, planning and control, real-time localization and mapping, and smart materials.
That startup-friendly atmosphere, shaped by universities such as CU Boulder and the Colorado School of Mines, “has produced a talent pool that is excited to work in early-stage companies,” Otteman said, “people who wear 10,000 hats and have to do a number of things. That type of worker is prevalent here.”
CU Boulder’s influence gave birth to Artimus Robotics Inc., which was co-founded by a number of researchers and alumni from the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering on the Boulder campus. The team, which included assistant professor Christoph Keplinger and a number of Ph.Ds, including Eric Acome and Tim Morrissey, launched Artimus in 2018 after publishing their research findings and working with Venture Partners at CU Boulder to gain entrepreneurial education.
“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” said Morrissey, now the company’s CEO.
Artimus is among several Boulder County robotics companies that have gained funding through capital campaigns and grants from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research program, often with the help of Venture Partners at CU Boulder. Scythe, for example, completed a $13.8 million Series A funding round last June, Otteman said, bringing its total funding including seed money to $18.6 million.
Scythe was named for a hand tool for mowing grass or harvesting crops, and the tool’s cutting edge translates well to innovation at Scythe Robotics, which Otteman said was born after now-CEO Jack Morrison, with a background in computer visioning, wondered while mowing his lawn, “How can I get a robot to do this for me?”
Otteman said the company was in stealth mode for nearly three years while its founders tried to figure out how to apply its robotic skills to a Boulder-flavored goal: “How can we use this technology to have a positive impact? How can it help us care for the planet? How can our roboticists apply our cutting-edge technology to greenspace management and environmental stewardship?”
The product Scythe unveiled last June was a 52-inch, fully autonomous commercial-grade mower that could be used by large contractors for maintaining areas such as parks and freeway boundaries.
“Commercial landscaping hasn’t seen much innovation over the past century,” Otteman said, “but we’ve used a convergence of electric power, smart technology and advanced robotics with computer vision. We have cameras on the outside that can tell the difference between a tree and a person; the robot will go around the tree but stop if a person is getting too close. It can help optimize workflows, help deploy crews more efficiently, and spot a broken sprinkler head and whether the grass around it is more brown or green. Then it can cue the account manager to talk to a property owner.”
He thinks the technology can open up new career paths in the landscaping industry as well.
“Labor has been a huge tension point for years, and not just magnified by the pandemic,” Otteman said. “Landscapers are 77% hamstrung in growth because they don’t have enough people to do the work, and they’re having to turn away clients.
“But our technology can uplevel the talent that exists, turning a landscaping crewman into a robot wrangler and attract new talent that’s more interested in sustainability technology.”
“If a task is really physically demanding — like long, heavy labor for large periods of time — that’s a good use for a robot,” WinterWinds’ Eastman said. Such jobs might include digging a trench to contain a wildfire.
“We originally started out developing robots for the moon,” he said, “but with the problems we saw here on Earth, we felt like we wouldn’t be good citizens if we built for the moon but not here.”
The bootstrapped company aims to have its robots be useful in fighting wildland fires, he said, including equipping them with water cannons and performing manual labor that would sap the strength of human crews.
“The most important thing is that robots are capable of reacting with trained personnel the way the firefighters around them need it most,” Eastman said. “I was deployed for the Marshall Fire, but robots aren’t quite ready for that yet. It’s not like we have 100 of our Earthlings on the fire line right now.”
The safety issue of having robots working around people is one of the biggest challenges in the industry, Eastman said, a reason Artimus Robotics’ Morrissey noted that they’re often still kept in “cages.”
“We’re a long ways away from robots being able to reason like humans can,” Eastman said. “We can reason through ambiguous commands that robots can’t. How can they be safe around us and also themselves? It’s a really hard problem that’s not solved yet, especially wirelessly, But we’re developing ways to hedge against the reasoning problem.”
Some of those solutions might be developed by robot fans still in elementary school. Up-A-Creek Robotics, born 18 years ago at Longmont’s Silver Creek High School and working with the St. Vrain Valley School District under the nonprofit GEAR Alliance, is a high school robotics team centered around the FIRST Robotics Competition, providing students the opportunity to work with industry professionals on realistic engineering challenges — and have fun along the way. The students create robots using 3D design software and write programs to control them, all the while dealing with real-world constraints such as deadlines and limited resources and budgets.
Up-A-Creek moved in 2007 to a room at the school district’s Career Development Center, then in 2015 to a 6,000-square-foot South Sherman Street facility that includes a CAD lab, software classroom, assembly room, machine shop, full-sized practice field, and a kitchen. It has attracted corporate sponsors including Ball Corp., The Boeing Co., Seagate Technology, Microsoft Corp. and Coors, and has expanded its outreach to students ages 4 through 18.
Some of those younger robot fans might make good use of “Cubelets,” robotic blocks produced by 14-year-old Carnegie Mellon University spinoff Modular Robotics that help teach problem-solving skills such as collaboration, engineering and computational thinking.
Schweikardt, Modular’s founder, said the blocks are also “sort of a Trojan horse because kids are also learning STEM” — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and lead to “lots of working together, which is super important for kids. They’re designed to make kids better at solving complex problems — including biological, social and political things. It teaches them about things that have lots of moving parts, and that things are more complex than they seem. It’s a way to get kids to be smarter about the real world.”
Boulder County is home to production of many other robotic systems as well.
- Louisville-based AMP Robotics supplied the Boulder County Recycling Center with robots nicknamed Sorty McSortface and Sir Sorts-a-Lot to help separate materials gathered from single-stream recyclers.
- Boulder’s Misty Robotics developed a Misty II personal robot that requires basic programming skills to operate and is targeted at developers, entrepreneurs and students.
- Longmont’s Left Hand Robotics developed an autonomous SnowBot Pro snow-plowing machine and provides workspace for Up-A-Creek students, often hiring some of them to work as interns.
- Boulder-based Company Six developed a robotic camera system that can venture into dangerous places ahead of human teams such as first responders or special-operations troops.
- Accelus Inc., founded last year through the combination of Integrity Implants and Fusion Robotics, works to make robotics accessible for health care facilities.
- And Honeybee Robotics Ltd., which was born in 1983 above a piano shop on New York City’s Lower East Side, has a Longmont office and has grown to become one of the top global suppliers of motion-control solutions for spacecraft.
“Robotics are one of those next frontiers that will be totally transformational about the way we live and work,” Scythe’s Otteman said. “Boulder County has many companies that have been doing robotics work for a while. Now, as the industry shifts focus and really looks at robotics, this is a great area that’s excited to meet these types of challenges.”
Some Boulder County robotics firms
AMP Robotics Corp., Louisville
- Founded: 2014
- Applies artificial intelligence and robotics to increase recycling rates and recover raw materials for the global supply chain.
Artimus Robotics Inc., Boulder,
- Founded: 2018
- HASEL actuators, a new class of smart, high-speed robotic hardware.
Honeybee Robotics Ltd., Longmont
- Founded: 1983
- Advanced mechanisms and robotic technologies for aerospace, planetary exploration, medical devices, energy, mining, infrastructure and more.
Left Hand Robotics, Longmont
- Founded: 2016
- Robotic snowplows, mowing and more. Acquired by the Toro Co. in 2021.
Misty Robotics Inc., Boulder
- Founded 2017
- Robots as a development platform. Spinoff of Sphero.
Modular Robotics Inc., Boulder
- Founded: 2008
- “Cubelets” robotic blocks
Occam Robotics Inc., Boulder
- Founded: 2010
- Computer vision products and systems for a range of robotics, automation, telepresence, tracking and surveillance applications.
Scythe Robotics Inc., Longmont
- Founded: 2021
- Autonomous mowers
Up-A-Creek Robotics, Longmont
- Founded: 2004
- High-school robotics team in the St. Vrain Valley School District
WinterWinds Robotics Inc., Longmont
- Founded: 2021
- Robots for wildland firefighting and other harsh environments