Semiconductor IP News and Trends Blog
Is Robotics an IP Category?
Did you know that one of the responsibilities of the US Commander-in-Chief is to keep an eye on robots? Yesterday, President Obama used this lighthearted introduction to promote the robotics work spearheaded by Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center.
What do full-fledged robotic systems, like the kind at the Carnegie center, have to do with semiconductor IP? This is what I wondered. After all, a robot is typically an electromechanical machine that is programmed and controlled by electronics. At first glance, it would seem that the only contribution to robotics from the semiconductor IP industry is on the electronics side, not the electrical or mechanical areas.
The key concepts are electronic-electrical and mechanical systems. If these two concepts seem familiar, it’s because we seem them used with ever increasing frequency in both the embedded and EDA worlds. If you doubt this trend, then look at the last Design Automation Conference – the premier EDA and IP show – which featured an embedded theme. Also, several of the major EDA companies (in particular, Cadence and Mentor) have recently moved to include some level of thermal and even mechanical modeling capabilities in their EDA tool suites. This is beyond tools used exclusively for 3D packaging of stacked dies.
Or consider today’s system-on-chip (SoC) designs, which are a collection of analog and digital technology on a single chip or package. SoCs are also at the heart of most robotic systems. Indeed, one my even say that robotics is the embodiment of a SoC, albeit at a higher-level of abstraction.
Today’s robots use semiconductor chip-level and software intellectual property. It is true that a great deal of the IP centers around microntroller (e.g., 8051) technology. But there are equal shares of IP for analog sensors and I/O interfaces; RF front-end subsystems for wireless applications; as well as analog-mixed signal and DSP cores. Further, let’s not forget the growing market for low-power specific IP variations.
Robotic hardware IP can be implemented in either ASIC-ASSP or FPGA designs. Software IP, in the form of libraries, is needed in even greater quantity than most of the hardware IP.
With all of this direct and circumstantial evidence for the important role of semiconductor IP in robotic systems, some critics might still argue that robotics is not really a category of IP. There is some truth to their assertions. For example, if you perform an Internet search on the phrase, “Semiconductor Medical IP,” you will come up with many relevant results. However, if you search under “Semiconductor Robotic IP,” the results will be messier and less conclusive. The reason for this discrepancy is that robotics refers to a high-level system, one that crosses almost all vertical markets. This makes sense as you’ll find robotics almost everywhere, from the automotive, mil-aero and industrial space to medical vertical markets.
The diversity of robotic semiconductor IP is an economic blessing to suppliers who sell to a wide market. But it can be a nightmare for the legal department since each distinct vertical market interprets the legal portion of intellectual property in slightly different ways. For example, in the medical industry, pharmaceutical and semiconductor firms have taken dramatically different approaches to protecting IP.
While the legal and business aspects of IP are fascinating and great topics for future blogs, my goal today is to remained focused on the technical. This is the “cool” side of the equation! There is no shortage of ingenious technical applications that further demonstrate the growing importance and proliferation of robotic IP.
Next time, I’ll explore two specific example of this technology – one from DAC, the other from ESC.
P.S. President Obama’s speech talked about the importance of Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP), where universities like Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, Stanford, Berkeley, Michigan combine intellectual forces with manufacturers, from Johnson & Johnson to Honeywell, Stryker to Allegheny Technologies. Here’s a portion of his speech that almost seems like science fiction, but is actual technology under work by the AMP:
“Now, imagine if America was first to develop and mass-produce a new treatment that kills cancer cells but leaves healthy ones untouched; or solar cells you can brush onto a house for the same cost as paint; or flexible display soldiers — flexible displays that soldiers can wear on their arms; or a car that drives itself. Imagine how many workers and businesses and consumers would prosper from those breakthroughs.”