The future of robotics is more secure than ever. Rather than being a dying breed, robots are more popular than ever. According to roboticstrends.com, in 2011 companies in North America topped their previous all-time record high from 2005. Last year 19,337 robots, totaling sales of $1.17 billion, were sold beating 2005’s record of 18,228 robots.
The future of robotics is diverse
So where are all these robots going and to what uses are they being put? Many of the robots are being used in military, law enforcement, industrial, biological, medical and consumer contexts. U.S. military entities have been using robotics for a variety of applications. A new application involves robotics that can track and refuel Sea Fox naval vessels.
These handy robotic floating gas stations, called Rapid Autonomous Fuel Transfer (RAFT) vessels are being developed by the NRL Spacecraft Engineering Department (SED). The RAFTs will allow the refueling of Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) in many kinds of weather. They will become particularly useful for refueling during storms. Robotics enable the placement of a magnetic refueling fitting to the fuel gauge on the target vessel so that the fuel can be transferred safely without loss.
Another exciting use for robotics by the military and law enforcement is the application of robotic arms as a counter-terrorism weapon. This cutting-edge technology will soon be employed as a result of a partnership between A-T Solutions Inc., an anti-terrorism solutions global leader and HDT Global, a manufacturer of advanced robotic arms. HDT’s MK2 Robotic Arm has become one of the first robotic limbs to closely mirror human manual dexterity. Robotic limbs employed in potentially dangerous situations could save many lives.
One thing remains constant in the robotic field, and that is change. Robotics is constantly undergoing innovation and is one of the fastest growing fields of research today. The industrial applications for robotics continue to expand. The National Science Foundation recently awarded Energid Technologies Corporation a two-year research grant. Energid will use the funding to create robotic techniques that will improve workers’ ability to manufacture goods. The new robotic technology will focus on time intensive roles like moving, modifying, combining and manipulating parts in the manufacturing process.
Robotics is being used in the field of biology in many ways, one of the most popular being the use of robots to observe animals in their natural environments. The use of cybernetics has brought about a breakthrough in the area of bio-robotics due to the cybernetic robot’s ability to receive feedback from and to respond to signals in the environment. This in turn has spawned bio mimicry, a new trend in robotics for observing and digitally recording animals in their habitats.
Paradoxically, the future of robotics may involve getting closer to nature
Some of the best nature programming on TV has been made possible through robotics, and by 2027, $300 billion of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) could be direct toward bio-mimicry. The Da Vinci Index, a report generated by such groups as the San Diego Zoo Global, predicts that by 2025, jobs involving bio mimicry could amount to 1.6 million jobs in the United States alone and could amount to nearly $1.0 trillion of the global GDP.
Regarding the use of robotics in medicine, nearly everyone is familiar with use of robotic arms and hands in surgery. But the most recent innovations have been in the construction of robots that interact with hospitalized people, children and the elderly. Japan has been developing robots to interact with its senior and disabled population. They call these robots RIBAs, Robots for Interactive Body Assistance. The robots, about the size of a small human being, operate on hidden wheels and have strong arms, a robust body, and paddle-like hands for lifting and carrying patients. The RIBAs have a very appealing face and design similar to the Japanese Maneki Neko, the popular smiling cat that symbolizes good fortune.
The most popular use of robots for consumers has been the relatively new robot vacuum cleaners that can be programmed to clean floors almost continuously. The type of consumer who probably needs this type of vacuum cleaner the most is one who suffers from allergies and/or needs to remove unwanted pet hair. Neato Robotics announced in March 2012 their new robot vacuum cleaner for consumers with pets and allergies. The programmable vacuum cleaner has a special brush to make it especially effective.
What does the future hold for tomorrow’s robot? One thing we know about the robot of the future is that it will probably use cloud-based robotics. James Kuffner, Jr. of Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute predicts that robots will be designed with cloud-based servers in mind so that they can be made cheaper and don’t have to carry internal processing for tasks such as vision recognition. Now that we have professional companies offering cloud services with remote servers, tomorrow’s robots will probably be designed with a wireless antenna and will be able to send their processing and data storage to cloud services. The future of robotics will partly involve communicating with the cloud.
There has also been a demand for social robots – robots that will interact with human beings in a human-like manner. Although robotics manufacturers have been racing against one another to create a true social robot, the prototypes available are still somewhat primitive. Nevertheless, this is certainly another area where the future of robotics has great potential. There has been progress making human-looking faces, but today’s interactive robots on the market, which sell start at $20,000 and up, remain quite mechanical. “Do androids (or robots) dream of electric sheep?”, Phillip K. Dick asked. We’ll know the answer to that one when we meet our first robot and ask them.