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The Robot Revolution: LabVIEW Addresses the Needs of an Emerging Market

Robots are steadily becoming a part of everyday life.
They are vacuuming living room floors, assembling hybrid cars, and autonomously performing military reconnaissance missions. They serve the government, defense, medical, agricultural, mining, space, and many other industries by performing the tasks that are dull, dirty, or dangerous to humans.
Despite these recent feats, industry experts suggest that the surge in innovation is just beginning and the robotics industry will be one of the fastest-growing enterprises within the next decade. In his Scientific American article, “A Robot in Every Home,” Bill Gates states that the robotics industry is developing in much the same way that the computer business did 30 years ago. With disruptive technologies such as multicore processing and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), robot builders have access to computer processing that is smaller, faster, and cheaper. They can also choose from the expanding variety of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) sensors – from inexpensive infrared microelectromechanical system (MEMS) sensors to highly complex laser rangefinders, or LIDARs, that produce intricate 3D models of a surrounding environment.
So why has the robotics industry not yet reached its tipping point? “The hardware capability is mostly there; now the issue is getting the software right,” Gates states in his article.

Figure 1. Building a robot requires knowledge in multiple disciplines. Finding a software platform that caters to all of these disciplines is key.
The robotics industry needs a software development platform that is what Microsoft BASIC was to the PC industry. Dr. Dave Barrett, professor at Olin College and former vice president of engineering at iRobot Corporation, explains why:
“When building a new robot, one must typically start from scratch. With no software standard, there is very little opportunity for code reuse or sharing. On top of that, to build sophisticated mobile robots, one must have, at minimum, working knowledge of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and controls theory.”
A challenge for many roboticists is finding a modular, reusable software development platform that caters to all of these disciplines.
Barrett says robotics experts have sent out a distress call. “We need an industrial-grade, hardened, richly supported software development system to build autonomous, mobile robots that can sense, think, and act in the world around them. I have spent 15 years trying to come up with the best robotics programming language, and LabVIEW has accomplished that.”