Once a staple of sci-fi flicks, robots are part of everyday life -- and their roles are extending as scientists use smaller, more flexible technologies to create new automated devices.
Manufacturers are investing in more sophisticated robots to reduce manual tasks. Logistics and tech companies are exploring ways to speed-up shipping and eliminate costly fuel and human expenses. And researchers are discovering brand new ways to explore the world, improve profits, and boost efficiencies. TV show "Lost in Space" featured a fictional robot
In the first nine months of 2013, North American robotics shipments soared to $1.1 billion, according to the Robotics Industries Association. That represents 17,645 robots, up 14.6% in units and 9% in dollars from the same period in 2012, the industry group said.
So where are these robots going?
Manufacturing and logistics
Apple plans to spend $10.5 billion on manufacturing processes and corporate facilities in 2014, according to its 10-k form. A good chunk of that money is going toward assembly robots, wrote Bloomberg. By using robotics to build products like its new Mac Pro, Apple can bring more manufacturing to the United States, according to the publication. The computer maker is using robots akin to those deployed by automakers, Bloomberg wrote.
For its part, Google is working on a "moonshot" project headed by Andy Rubin, the person behind the company's Android operating system, reported the New York Times today. Google has acquired seven technology companies over the past six months or so, initially hoping to target manufacturing companies that continue to rely on manual labor for tasks such as electronics assembly, the paper said.
In addition, Google wants to automate package delivery. The company experimented with Google Shopping in some cities, and is already making home deliveries for companies such as Target, Walgreens, and American Eagle Outfitters, in a handful of cities like San Francisco, according to the Times.
This service will, of course, compete with Amazon, which caused a stir earlier this week when it previewed a drone delivery service it hopes to begin using within the next few years. (The Federal Aviation Administration, however, predicts they will not fly until 2017 or 2026.)
But car manufacturers alone have been using robots for years. These machines have eliminated many manual processes, reducing errors, and trimming costs.
Under the sea
Researchers at the Centre for Biorobotics at Tallinn University of Technology in the Philippines built a robotic turtle to explore deep-sea shipwrecks. Dubbed the U-CAT, the device uses four independent flippers to maneuver and swim forward and backward, up and down.
"Conventional underwater robots use propellers for locomotion. Fin propulsors of U-CAT can drive the robot in all directions without disturbing water and beating up silt from the bottom, which would decrease visibility inside the shipwreck,Ē said Taavi Salumše, designer of the U-CAT concept and researcher at the center, in a statement.
In addition to photographers and divers, robots like U-CAT are useful to the oil and gas industry and defense.
Many farming tasks are repetitive and, therefore, ideally suited to robots. Robotic milking machines are familiar sights at dairy farms, while other robots address agricultural concerns such as plowing fields, seeding new crops, and picking ripe fruit, according to Metro UK.
Tractors are more frequently outfitted with GPS-based automated steering for improved fuel economy. And it's easy to predict a day when farmers will use drones to oversee their acreage.
Fruit harvesters could become ubiquitous in about five years, David Gardner, chief executive at the Royal Agricultural Society of England, told Metro. Within two decades, all farms will have some sort of robot, he added.
Next year, Australian farmers plan to demonstrate weed-eliminating robots that could save the nation's agricultural business some of the $4 billion it spends annually on culling unwanted plants. Robots will help improve efficiency, allow farmers to cultivate more land, and improve environmental efforts, experts said.
"The real benefit in robotics is going to be new ways of growing crops... how we can increase the yield, use inputs like fertiliser more efficiently and reduce effects on the Great Barrier Reef," farmer Andrew Bate told Agence France-Presse.
And a whole lot more
Many other industries will adopt or expand their existing use of robots, pundits predict. From healthcare and home-health services to law enforcement, these mechanized devices are becoming more agile and intelligent, allowing operators to put them in more complex scenarios for more sophisticated tasks.
But who will maintain and operate these armies of robots? Will IT be in charge or will departments turn to other experts, whether internal or external, for assistance? And whose budget will ultimately pay for robots and their upkeep?
When artificial intelligence is more fine tuned, we can expect a generation of "thinking" robots that are collaborative and interactive, a generation of robots that could well require more support. Whether that ultimately leads to a sci-fi movie blowout scene, only time -- and programmers -- will decide.
— Alison Diana , ThinkerNet Editor,