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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Adam Davis assembles a robot at Adept Technology, Inc. in Amherst Monday, April 2, 2012.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Julian Ware of Adept Technology Inc. explains the functions of one of their robots to Maggie Hassan, third from left, during the gubernatorial candidate's tour of their manufacturing facility in Amherst Monday, April 2, 2012.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Julian Ware of Adept Technology, Inc. in Amherst Monday, April 2, 2012.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Aaron Jarzombek assembles a robot at Adept Technology, Inc. in Amherst Monday, April 2, 2012.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Jeanne Dietsch, cofounder of Adept Technology, Inc., at their manufacturing facility in Amherst Monday, April 2, 2012.
Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Robots are cool, but drawing young professionals to state even cooler

AMHERST – Although its Amherst plant bristles with robots, computer boards and mathematical formulas, the most exciting thing at MobileRobots for a certain segment of New Hampshire economic advisers might be people like Lauren Bucher.

Bucher is a 20-something who moved to New Hampshire with her husband from the Silicon Valley headquarters of Adept Technology, the firm that bought MobileRobots in 2010. She’s here in the communications department partly because she thinks New Hampshire a nicer place to live and partly because the moving robot being created here is more intriguing than the fixed industrial robot arms that are the heart of Adept’s West Coast presence.

“Many of the younger people gravitate here,” Bucher said.

That’s music to the ears of New Hampshire leaders who lament the state’s inability to hold onto the post-college crowd, leading to fears of demographic and economic stagnation. It’s a big part of the reason that small-tech firms companies like MobileRobots are valued.

The other reason it is valued, of course, is that robots are cool.

The company, created in a Peterborough kitchen in 1994, now has 25 people designing and building, as the name implies, robots that can move as well as associated software. It is the fastest-growing division of Adept, a 28-year-old firm that markets itself as the largest U.S.-based manufacturer of industrial robots.

MobileRobots units range in size from the equivalent of a microwave oven – the Pioneer, its most popular unit – to the equivalent of a chest freezer – an outdoor model that looks like a fat, unmanned ATV. They roll around purposefully, keeping track of their location and deciding where to go via laser guidance, cameras, artificial-intelligence software for obstacle avoidance, and a lot of other technology. It’s a non-trivial application of many fast-changing technologies.

Commercial robots do things like deliver supplies – properly programmed, a single command can send them weaving their way through crowded hallways to the correct location – or help tire manufacturers process thousands of tires.

The commercial manufacturing and much of the sales was shifted to Adept’s facility in California, which has the size and heft to get ISO 9001 certification, while the Amherst office handles international sales and development for research labs and universities, and Adept’s East Coast sales.

MobileRobots owns a big chunk of the research market because its machines are built around a software package called Motivity, designed to make them easy to customize.

“They’re computers on wheels, basically,” said Julian Ware, a company marketing representative. “The really interesting things done with these (robots) are done by our customers,”

The firm has a YouTube channel featuring videos from research labs that have used MobileRobots devices to lay bricks, create maps, play music (that one’s called “Bothoven”), and communicate among themselves as they zip around on the floor, forming a sort of semi-intelligent swarm.

The existence of Motivity was a big reason for Adept to buy the company. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still low-tech issues to be tackled when developing machines that can figure out where to go in the middle of a dangerous and complicated environment – like, say, an office.

“A lot of things can throw it off,” said Seth Dunten, projects manager for the firm. “Even the nap of the carpet can make a difference.”

MobileRobots, located in a 32,000-square-feet space in an industrial park behind the Walmart on Route 101A in Amherst, is at the northern end of what might be considered the region’s robotics arc.

The arc starts in Cambridge, Mass., thanks largely to MIT, runs through iRobots and scores of other firms in a Boston-area robotics cluster, and heads north to include Vgo in Nashua, which competes against MobileRobots in the robot telepresence market.

That is good news for New Hampshire, anxious to get a reputation as a good place for brainy startups – the sort that attract young, educated people.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or