Boulder Is For Robots

I’ve been intrigued with robots since I was a little kid. When I was at MIT in the 1980’s, there was a huge movement around the future of robotics. A few of my friends, most notably Colin Angle, went on to do something and co-founded iRobot which he still runs 25 years later. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to robots or robotics in the 1990’s as I got caught up in the Internet, but started thinking about them again about five years ago. Over the past few years, as part of our human computer interaction theme, we’ve invested in several companies doing “robotics related stuff” including MakerBot (3D Printers) and Orbotix (a robotic ball controlled by a smartphone). I’ve also looked at lots of robot-related companies and thought hard about the notion that the machines have already taken over and are just waiting patiently for us to catch up.

Recently I met with Nikolaus Correll, an assistant professor at CU Boulder in the Computer Science department. Nikolaus does research on multi-robot systems and has a bunch of great commercial ideas about robotics. As we were talking, we started discussing other people in Boulder who were working on robotics related stuff. It turns out to be a long list and Nikolaus asked “why don’t people talk more about all the robotics stuff going on in Boulder?” I had no clue so I said “let’s start a movement – titled Boulder is for Robots. Let’s get anyone doing robotics related stuff together and create some entrepreneurial critical mass around this, just like we have for the software / Internet community.”

We agreed that Boulder Is For Robots is a great call to action and are having our first Boulder Is For Robots Meetup on February 7th from 5pm – 10pm. Bring your robots – I’ll supply pizza and beer. You have to sign up in the Boulder Is For Robots Meetup group to find out the location.

In the mean time, following are some thoughts on the robot-related stuff going on in Boulder from Nikolaus. If you are working on something interesting, please add to the list.

Why “Boulder is for Robots” can be tied to a single observation: when I was working as a Post-Doc at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, almost everything we ordered to build robots came from somewhere less than an hour from Boulder. Why is this important? Let’s consider how Steve Wozniak developed the Apple computer, which revolutionized the computer industry from a garage. Did he really create a computer from scratch, transistor by transistor? Or did he emerge from hundreds of tinkerers that relied on a large community that provided mail-order electronic kits, do-it-your-self magazines, inspirational people, and hundreds of man years of university research? The bay area was indeed the place to be at the time with the Homebrew Computer Club and marketing genius Steve Jobs who convinced Wozniak to sell his design, laying the foundation for Apple. Building robots is much more complex than building computers, however: robots consist not only of computers, but also of sensors and mechanisms that need to be invented, re-combined, and modified to create a compelling product. I therefore believe that being part of a community is even more important for developing successful robot companies and having all the tools, know-how, and manpower close by provides a unique competitive advantage.

Boulder provides this infrastructure: For example, Sparkfun enables tens of thousands of amateurs and researchers to create electronic and mechatronic artifacts. They do that not only by retailing hard-to-acquire electronic components and innovative pre-fabbed modules that drastically increase the productivity of hobbyists, entrepreneurs and researchers across the nation, but they also provide free access to a wealth of educational resources that allow amateurs to mimic industrial processes, often just using kitchen equipment. Similarly, Acroname and RoadNarrow Robotics retails sensors and ready-made devices for building state-of-the-art robots, including laser scanners, motor drivers, and digital servos. All three companies actively develop hardware and software that make the integration of ever more complex mechatronic products possible in garages. They also contribute to a pool of “Can-Do” people that spin off companies.

Boulder turns out to be also a hub for manufacturing: close-by Aurora is home to one of the best deals in PCB Manufacturing ($33/each) in the country (Advanced Circuits) and the first – and still only – assembly service in the nation (AAPCB) that assembles single boards for less than $50.

While developers across the nation benefit from these Boulder-area companies, this unique ecosystem of tinkerers, leading manufacturing techniques, and suppliers create a vivid community that amplifies innovation in the Boulder area and already has attracted a series of successful robotics start-ups: For example, Modrobotics, a CMU spin-off, makes transformative robotic construction kits that could be the next “Lego”. Orbotix co-founded by a duo of young engineers from CSU and UNC that became part of the Boulder TechStars 2010 class and subsequently raised over $6m of venture money for their new gaming robot, Sphero. OccamRobotics, founded by a serial entrepreneur who came to Boulder from the bay area, is working on low-cost, autonomous pallet trucks that build up on recent breakthroughs in robotic algorithms, availability of open-source tools, and novel sensors.

Each these companies have in common that their founders identified Boulder as the place that will make them most successful – often moving here from other hot-spots for high-tech entrepreneurship and engineering. These start-ups are complemented by mechatronic giants such as Ball Aerospace, close-by Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin; small and medium-sized companies that develop robotic equipment for satellites and defense organizations; by a myriad of self-financed tinkerers that develop everything from robotic insects to robotic wheel-chairs in their living rooms and next-generation agriculture systems at Boulder’s Hacker-space Solid State Depot; and of course, the University of Colorado of which many engineering programs are among the top of the nation and the world, and which has a strong research program in unmanned aerial systems.

My lab is working on our agriculture system’s most pressing challenges, robots that can assemble large-scale telescope dishes in space to see into remote galaxies, understanding how intelligence can emerge from large-scale distributed, individually simple components, and constructing robotic facades that help save us power. These efforts are complemented by hands-on classes such as Robotics, Advanced Robotics, Things that Think, or Real-time embedded systems, and others, to shape a new generation of engineers who think of computers as devices that cannot only compute, but sense and literally change the world.

Why now? Robotics has been an industry since the 1960’s when George Devol’s Unimate was sold to manipulate steel plates in a GM plant. Indeed, robots have revolutionized manufacturing, but still have not delivered on early claims of the field. Robot stunts delivered by the Unimate on the 1961 “Tonight” show, still remain a major challenge for artificial intelligence 50 years later: opening a can of beer, pouring it, or directing an orchestra. These commercially successful robots, which led to the raise of Japan to a major industrial power in the 1980’s, were not autonomous, but simply execute pre-calculated paths. This trend is finally changing right now, documented by companies such as iRobot, Husqvarna and KIVA systems who successfully market autonomous robotic products, and is mainly driven by exponential developments in computing (“Moore’s Law”), cell phones and cars – both industries who integrate computing and sensors at high density.

“Boulder is for Robots” is not only an observation, but also an imperative to bring entrepreneurs, tinkerers, and capital together to bring the next big robotic idea to life in Boulder by exchanging know-how, man-power, and tools, and combining them into great new products. In case you already knew that “Boulder is for Robots”, please comment on this post and share what you do!

  • I want to learn / do more, so I’ll be there.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t forget about one of my undergrad alma maters, the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. Send a post to the university, they have always had a great group of engineers. Perhaps once again they will be known as the MIT of the midwest.

    • Any suggestion as to where I should send the post / who I should contact?

      • Lee Drake

        I would suggest partnering with FIRST – the mentors in FIRST are your target audience for this post.  Feel free to contact me if you need a hand!

      • Anonymous

        William hoff

        Mike mooney 

        John Steele

  • This is a field that’s a little intimidating to enter for some us non-robot-geeks – hardware is a different game vs software. I’d love to see a community emerge to help with the transition.

    • That’s what we are trying to create! Come join us.

  • James Mitchell

    I’ve been meaning to write a short essay on robots of the future. Your post inspired me to finally do so. My short essay is available at:

    • Glad to inspire! I read the essay – I think the time frame will be shorter and I think the merge between humans and computers will be much more profound, but good thoughts!

      • James Mitchell

        I joke that I desperately want such a robot because I’ve had such bad luck with housekeepers/personal assistants. The one I have now is great but there have been some doozies in the past.

        I would love to see a team of people who really understand this stuff (which clearly excludes me) devise a year by year projection of when such a machine will be available. Predictions about computing power and memory are remarkably easy to make — such make one of the axises logarithmic and basically it has been a straight line since WW II. Predictions about AI and the mechanical aspects seem to me to be more difficult.

        Some interesting policy questions:

        First, should the government fund this type of research? If so, should it be a massive research project, like going to the moon? The defense department funds a lot of cutting edge research. Imagine a robot that the U.S. could send into enemy territory. If the robot gets blown up, who cares, it is only money. We are partially doing that with drones nowadays.

        Or will the market just provide the necessary funds over the next 30 years?

        My proposal would be for the government to fund five major research centers, providing each of them $100 million a year for the next 20 years. Total cost: $10 billion. All research generated would be put into the public domain. It is almost impossible a scenario where less than $10 billion in increased productivity occurs.

        Second, for the 30 percent who become unemployed, what do we as a society do with them? Starting around WW II, our economy has moved towards rewarding knowledge workers who can think and are creative, while penalizing those who work manually. But we have just seen the tip of the iceberg.

    • Nikolaus Correll

      I actually think access to robots such as those you describe will split society in half, those who’s jobs economic productivity far exceeds those of robots (and who can therefore afford them), and those whose economic productivity is on a comparable scale. This is pretty much comparable to high-priced urban centers (such as Manhatten and San Francisco), which are unaffordable to those earning an average US salary. For all others, robots such as you describe will overtake primarly jobs that are dull, dangerous, or both, adding tremendous cultural and economic value to society. An example of this is agriculture: cultural (scientific & economic) output drastically increases the less people are required to spend their time on food production. Unfortunately, this efficiency came at a price and can only be solved by a complete overhaul of the agricultural system, and this is where I believe government should invest (to answer your other question).

      Government is currently supporting robotics research via the recently launched “National Robotics Initiative” that is administered jointly by NSF, NASA, USDA and NIH and will spend around 80 Million dollars on robotics research focusing on robots closely working with humans in order to increases the US’ competitiveness in this area. I argue that a focused investment in solving the problems of our current agricultural system by moving towards robot-tend poly-cultures will lead to robots such as those described in your essay as a by-product. That focused efforts make sense, is illustrated by the DARPA Grand Challenge (drive a car from L.A. to Las Vegas autonomously through the desert). While none of the competitors got farther than a few miles in the first competition, the problem was solved a year (and 50 Million dollars research funding) later. 

      • James Mitchell

        Nikolaus, great comment. Hasn’t Google written software to control a car that can pretty much drive itself?

        People talk about the dangers of software controlling a car. Reasonably soon, I predict that a thoughtful person will talk about the dangers of humans controlling a car — humans drive drunk, they fall asleep at the wheel, they txt while driving, some just don’t know how to drive.

        Cars that drive themselves present some interesting legal issues. If the car smashes into someone, is the owner of the car liable? The manufacturer? The company that wrote the software? The problem with our current federalist system is that 50 different state legislatures (as well as the courts of those 50 states) will be deciding these issues differently, which will seriously hamper the development of such cars. I would like U.S. Congress to pass uniform legislation on this. I would love to have a car that could drive itself while I sit in the backseat goofing off.

        • Nikolaus Correll

          Yes, Google has hired the people that won the Grand Challenge to build cars for them and have now logged hundredthousand miles in CA. Yes, robots come with all sorts of ethical and legal issues. I let students debate about
          these issues in class.

  • James Mitchell

    Robots are an example of where clusters will be so important. There are so many different aspects to building useable robots and it is really helpful to have many of these companies in one place.

    It is interesting that Stanford or MIT have not launched robotics centers. Or have they?

    Robots will be a several hundred billion dollar market. This is the kind of thing that Peter Thiel would invest in.

  • Lee Drake

    If you really want to make Boulder For Robots – may I suggest starting at the middle and high school level by sponsoring and mentoring FIRST Robotics teams, and involving them in every stage of your program for entrepreneurs.  It’s highly important that you start kids getting interested in STEM robotics when they are very young and FIRST ( is the best way to do this.  You will be amazed at what the kids can come up with, rivalling stuff that professional engineers can’t do themselves.  This year the Kickoff for the FRC competition is this weekend (Saturday) – I would strongly encourage you to find a team and attend with them. 

    • Thx Lee – I’ve been a supporter of FIRST in the past and think it’s an awesome program. This is a great suggestion.

      • Anonymous

        I wish some company would build something called mBots which will be like lego robotic kit controlled by simple gestures from a smartphone or even better an iPad. Could be a great way to get kids interested at a very early age in STEM fields. They seem to be most comfortable with gestures on ipads anyway!

        • Cool idea – great simple hack.




        • Why not build it yourself?  Sounds like a pretty damn good idea to me.  I’d buy it.  (Less for my kids, more because that would be awesome and I want it)

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  • Anonymous

    Very interesting post, Brad. Seems that Boulder has stiff competition in Boston and Palo Alto, no? We’re working our butts off building a killer team at Romotive in Las Vegas, and most of the people we are hiring are coming from either MIT, Harvard, or Stanford…

    Robot power!

    • I don’t view it as a zero sum game – I think we can have great things going on in lots of places!

      • Nikolaus Correll

        What made you guys move to Vegas instead of staying in Arizona/Cambridge? Ever thought coming to Boulder?

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  • I have seen some really cool robotic things out of U Illinois in Champaign.  One product I saw made wheel chairs more efficient and one was a great idea for amputated arms.  With higher and higher levels of technology, it’s going to happen.

  • very good post!

  • – deleted as dupe –

  • Annie Graebner

    Hey Brad — I passed this on to my friends at SparkFun, and they’re going to try to send someone. I’m looking forward to it!

  • I’m a CU/CS graduate with a kid just getting ready to enter high school. He’s been living in Scratch for a while now and I’d love to get him to bridge the gap between screen work and mechanics. I think it would be a perfect time / age to do that. He’s just starting to think about what direction he wants to go. I’ve watched for programs in Boulder that would be mentoring for kids his age – he’s outgrown Science Discovery – but I haven’t found much. If you could find a way to engage that age group I bet they’d add a lot of energy and fun to the project.

    • Nikolaus Correll

      Geri-Ellen, check what kind of activities and equipment our local highschools offer. One of our GK12 fellows offers a robotic activity at Boulder High (

  • Jan Horsfall

    Absolutely loved this. Was going to come forward with Lee’s commentary as well: start them young. CMU utilizes a ton of early education all the way through high schools to get people attached to their robotics program (which is the best in the U.S.). My middle son is 9-years old and read this post. He wants to go see the robots. He loves science and tinkering. Ideal time to nail him and get him interested in the vocation of robotics. As noted in reply to your tweet, one of the things I’m most 

    • Nikolaus Correll

      We are working to engage K-12 on multiple levels already, few of the activities using robots. One of our GK12 fellows is building robots with students at Boulder High (,  I’m about to receive NSF money to outreach to 4-th graders using Modrobotic cubelets, and talk to the ONR about developing a highschool robotic kit similar to their SEAPERCH ( ) platform.

      All of these activities are tied to specific schools and teachers. There is no commercial after-school robotic activity in Boulder that I’m aware of, and I receive requests on this every now and then. I see some potential for offering such a program as paid activity (or run by a group of dads), not limited to Boulder, and find that robotics is a particularly wonderful segue into science and engineering as it spans almost every of its aspects and can be motivated by grand challenge applications. Existing kits such as FIRST or SEAPERCH and associated curriculums could be used to bootstrap such a program. With the right leadership such a program could even guide the higschoolers toward scientific publications, a good example is the Jisan research institute in Pasadena (

      • Charles Dietrich

        Thanks for mentioning my project @ Boulder High. It would be great to see the hackerspace offer an afterschool robotic activity.

  • Jan Horsfall

    sorry … broke the post … one of the things I’ve always reveled in was that the licensing fees from the Lycos spider technology we used from CMU essentially funded the entire robotics program prior to its epic growth over the last decade. I was judging a CSU business plan competition and lo and behold – the pool cleaning robot from CMU – replete with a robot who leaves and returns to the storage station. Zero human involvement. Love it!

  • Jan Horsfall

    BTW, here’s the target page for CMU’s program … started in ’78 (and more than adequately funded since then).  ;’)

  • Janhorsfall
  • I am so in for this.

    What would really help is a serious TechShop / NYCResistor style hacker space that can become a focal point for Boulder hackers to come work with atoms instead of bits.  There’s Club Workshop in Denver (I have a membership there) but it is a pain to travel 36 between Boulder and Denver in traffic or snow.  It’s time to create the next-gen version of the Homebrew Computer Club in Boulder.

    Also, in terms of awesome local companies, I would add Lulzbot ( in Loveland, who make Mendel-style 3D Printers (Prusa and Max) and Epilog ( in Golden, who is one of the biggest manufacturers of laser etcher / cutters in the US.

    To quote Winston Zeddemore in Ghostbusters: We have the tools! We have the talent!

    • Nikolaus Correll

      Check out here in Boulder, who are growing quickly. Lulzbot and Epilog are great companies, no robot made without them!

      • Nikolaus — Are you a part of that crew? I think that they should definitely be a core part of whatever happens here in Boulder.  When I went looking for a hacker space, I read up on them.  They don’t seem to have much equipment (laser, CNC, metal and woodworking), so perhaps if we could bring them together with equipment, good things could happen!

        • Nikolaus Correll

          One of my students, Dan Zukowski, is a co-founder of the place. They are a very inspired group, check out one of their presentations:

          We are working together on agricultural robots. Yes, they do need equipment and the more they get, the cooler things will happen!

          • Nik, can you introduce me to Dan? Eric at Marcoullier dot Com. Thx!

  • Peter Neame

    Very thought-provoking. Thanks 

  • Oh wow,

    I just had the idea over the holidays to use my programming language to control robots.  And I’m moving to boulder in April.  Can’t wait to join you all!


    • Awesome! Welcome.

  • M smith

    my first time dealing with robotics’s was in the boulder district when i was in middle school. im glad i had the chance



    • We can’t wait for you to come visit us. Plenty to eat, and plenty not to eat here.



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  • Scanning through the last few months of posts on Google Currents revealed a number of pearls, this post being one of them. I’m excited to see the next generation of bots and how we may interact with them with our always available smart phones.

    Keep up the good work of community building, “with great power comes great responsibility” 😀

    ps: the onswipe version is another roadblock to clicking through and commenting

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  • The FIRST regional event will be at DU  March 22nd – 24th.  If there’s an event coming up afterwards, I can hand out flyers to mentors.

    There’s also Automate Denver that people are looking to put together in April,   

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