In a race for robotics: Crash doesn’t quell Jones’ hope of building new industry

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One day in the not-so-distant future, robot drones will drive the military’s supply vehicles through dangerous war zones. They’ll pilot tractors across farm fields and steer plows as they scrape snowy highways. Automatic cars will even whisk you to and from work.

High-tech entrepreneur Scott Jones, 44, believes with a zealot’s fervor this all will happen. More than a gee-whiz observer, the man who helped invent voice mail hopes to establish a robotic vehicle business-and ultimately the robotic vehicle industry-in Indiana.

But don’t expect it to happen automatically.

“There’s probably a dozen high-growth industries that will emerge during the next 20 years. This is absolutely one of them. And Indiana may not be better positioned for any of the other dozen,” Jones said. “We have to go and grab the brass ring. If we don’t, it will happen on the coasts, or it will happen in other countries like Germany and Japan.”

A grand disappointment

Jones says he hasn’t lost enthusiasm for his vision, despite suffering a huge setback earlier this month when his Indy Robot Racing Team vehicle crashed at the start of its first major competition, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Grand Challenge.

Spurred on by congressional mandate to make one-third of military land vehicles autonomous by 2015, DARPA challenged mechanical engineers to develop a car capable of autonomously navigating the Mojave Desert in less than 10 hours. The first team across the finish line would win $2 million.

Robotics experts around the nation responded with the enthusiasm of NASA’s original moon shot. During the first race in March 2004, the top team-Carnegie Mellon University-barely made it past the seven-mile mark. But on Oct. 9, DARPA announced five vehicles had successfully finished its 131.6-mile course, led by Stanford University.

Because of the crash, Jones had to watch the event unfold as a spectator.

It was a serious setback for Indiana’s robotics effort. After Jones’ team spent months outfitting a custom Jeep Rubicon with sensors and complex computer systems, it didn’t even get past DARPA’s starting line.

Simple human error created a fatal software glitch. The Jeep believed it was still on a test track 100 miles from DARPA’s course, and ran straight into a concrete wall at 30 miles per hour.

“We’ve done this literally hundreds of times, with no snag. I just stood there stunned,” Jones said. “It’s a bit like if you’ve got a team everybody thinks is going to win the playoffs, and then you don’t even make it due to an injury.”

Helplessly, Jones and his all-volunteer crew watched Stanford collect the $2 million prize. Sayonara startup cash. And more important, bye-bye to the bragging rights that might have attracted investors.

“Now we’ve got a credibility issue. Most of the public and even DARPA will say, ‘You didn’t even make it into the race, and 23 teams did,'” Jones said. “Silicon Valley has the first win. They’ve done it before with the computer industry. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they do it again with the car industry.”

Continuing the quest

But all is not lost. Jones still believes in his quixotic quest to race past the rest of the robotics hubs. The first step is to press on with his new business, IndyRobotics LLC.

Although much of the investment so far has been in the form of sweat equity from university professors and students, Jones said some parts of his vehicle were far more advanced and adaptable than anything else in the DARPA field.

Those individual hardware and software components could be reproduced and sold. Once it establishes real cash flow, Jones said, IndyRobotics will boast a better case for investors.

For now, Jones wants to keep his startup small and lean, with a handful of employees. Until he finds another opportunity to showcase its technology, Jones is hesitant to approach venture capitalists.

“We know we’ve got something special, and we want to make sure the equity would be appropriately priced,” he said.

Keeping his dream alive are the Indiana assets that excited Jones in the first place: top-notch research universities, all of which devoted resources to the project, and deep ties to automotive manufacturing.

Those who share Jones’ vision acknowledge the DARPA Grand Challenge was a missed opportunity, but point out history has shown the first player in a new technology market isn’t always the last one standing.

Retired Rolls Royce North America Vice Chairman Mike Hudson noted that Dell wasn’t the first computer-maker. Boeing didn’t build the first successful airliner. And Wal-Mart wasn’t the first mass-retailer.

“Now is not the time to cut and run,” Hudson said. “If you look at industries here in Indiana, you’d have to say that first in is not always the winner in the race. If that were true, we would be the center of the universe for automobile production, because the Hoosiers were first out of the gate in terms of the self-propelled automobile. Somehow, we didn’t sustain it.”

Indiana Manufacturers Association President Pat Kiely sees a future in the robotic vehicle industry, and says Hoosiers will need it.

Old Economy automakers are struggling. This month, the largest U.S. autoparts supplier, Michigan-based Delphi Corp., sought bankruptcy protection, overwhelmed by health care and pension costs. Delphi, Indiana’s 10th-biggest employer, is expected to close as many as 31 domestic plants.

Yesterday’s auto universe revolved around Detroit, Kiely said. But it’s not yet clear which regions will dominate in robotic vehicles. He said Indiana entrepreneurs must innovate, and shouldn’t let losing a single race derail their determination.

“It’s like the old saying: The pioneers get all the arrows and the settlers get all the land,” Kiely said. “We could have a future there, if we can get the right parties together and moving in the right direction.”

A rough road

Economist Pat Barkey, director of Ball State University’s Bureau of Business Research, sees potential, but also obstacles.

Indiana’s universities regularly produce the kind of alumni who can spur invention, but they often move elsewhere. In a speculative field like robotics, graduates will want to live where they can easily find a new job if a particular startup fails.

“Our labor force reflects who we are, not what we’d like to be,” Barkey said. “It’s hard to attract talent when you’re right out of the crib.”

Some who saw promise in robotics are already discouraged. Hugh Meyer was leader of Indiana’s other Grand Challenge team, Greenfield-based Indiana Robotic Navigation, which didn’t advance past qualification rounds. Meyer can’t see how to catch up on the lead established by the winners.

“The standard goal for everyone was to win and get the contracts to build [automatic vehicles] for the government. But the guys at Stanford are going to be doing that,” he said. “Why would they come to us when they’ve got others who have done it successfully?”

That’s all the more reason to push on, Jones said. Indiana fell short in DARPA’s robotic sprint. But what really matters is how it performs in the marathon.

“It’s unfortunate we weren’t crossing that finish line first. But an industry is being created as we speak,” Jones said. “The question is, ‘Will we be participating in it?”

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