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Robotics industry makes its pitch to Congress

A four-wheeled robot

In this story:

September 30, 1997
Web posted at: 11:45 p.m. EDT (0345 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Robotics is an $8 billion industry worldwide, and is expected to rival the automobile and computer industries in dollars and jobs. But the United States has fallen behind in the robotics race, which is why many of its U.S. members put on a show-and-tell Tuesday in Washington.

"This is a cutting-edge area of the world's economy," said Rep. Robert Franks of New Jersey. "America has every opportunity to dominate if we will coordinate our private with our public investment and draw on the resources of government agencies."

To demonstrate just a sliver of the potential of robotics, the industry brought some of their robots and put on a small-scale expo for members of Congress.

vxtreme CNN's Ann Kellan reports

They included a small, wheeled robot similar to the Sojourner that is exploring the surface of Mars.

There were others, also wheeled, designed to sense their surroundings and maneuver accordingly. One was designed to crawl over difficult terrain while searching for bombs, mines and explosives.

Spider-like robot

Another, a tall, spiderlike contraption with eight legs, has the ability to stand on one set of legs at a time. It was created to crawl through, and perhaps one day clean up, hazardous waste.

Still others were so small that they could only be seen through a microscope. Researchers hope that one day they will swim through and repair the human body.

All the technology made in the United States

The expo was meant to be a wake-up call to Congress.

"We lost the game with Japan," says Joseph Engelberger of HelpMate Robotics. "And I'm not a Japan-basher, by the way. I say bully for them, shame on us, because all the technology for robotics came from the United States."

Those in the industry say that robots will revolutionize the future, right down to the most elemental features of our lives.

"I should be able to tell a robot to fix dinner at a certain time," says Howard Moraff of the National Science Foundation. "The robot, which will be part of my microwave, will reach into the refrigerator, prepare the food, prepare the dinner and have it cooked while I'm stewing on the parkway just getting home."

To regain momentum in the robotics race, manufacturers and government research labs want Congress to develop policies and financial incentives to encourage industries to work together.

'We can't let this technology creep off'

For example, the same core robot that can perform eye surgery could also be used to assemble automobile parts or disassemble weapons.

"We've got to have some cohesive support, some science policy regarding this," said Dr. Steve Charles, an eye surgeon. "We can't let all this technology creep off to other developing countries."

According to the industry representatives, sharing resources and research along with government-approved financial incentives, as is often the case in other countries, would go a long way toward getting the United States back in the robotics race.

Correspondent Ann Kellan contributed to this report.


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