The industrial robot revolution

"Five years from now robots will be far more ubiquitous and we'll depend on them in a much more fundamental way"

One small step for man, a giant leap for robot-kind.

NASA recently launched Curiosity, the newest rover to explore Mars. Curiosity is a supercharged robot that can collect, analyze and transmit data about the experience on the Red Planet using environmental sensors, radiation monitors, chemistry instruments and more.

And although the project's price tag - $2.5 billion - might seem staggering, it's a clear statement to the world that the future is in robotics. A message that is not lost here on Earth.

RELATED: 11 cool robots you may not have heard of

According to the International Federation for Robotics (IFR), robots "will be a major driver for global job creation over the next five years." A study conducted by global research firm Metra Martech, released in November, credited the 1 million industrial robots currently in operation with being directly responsible for the creation of close to 3 million jobs.

Metra Martech researchers also found that a cross-section of industries, including consumer electronics, food, solar and wind power, and advanced battery manufacturing plan to tap into the benefits robotics offer.

For instance, robots can be used in capacities that would be unsafe for humans, that would not be economically viable in a high-wage economy; and that would be impossible for humans, according to the report.

In sectors such as electronics, semiconductors and pharmaceuticals, robots provide the required quality, precision, speed and traceability that cannot be achieved manually, the study found.

Frank Tobe, owner and publisher of "The Robot Report" has observed growing interest in robotics around the globe and across vertical markets. "Robots appeal to an array of businesses, including agricultural, packaging and distribution, and medical," he says.

He believes a dramatic shift in how robots are made and perceived has sparked their broad acceptance. "People used to think of robots as expensive, monstrous, dangerous, clunky machines that had to have a cage around them. Today's robots are nothing like that - they are cheaper, lighter, agile, and equipped with sensors to make them safer so they can work alongside humans," he says.

For instance, robots now handle accuracy-dependent tasks such as polishing and sanding on consumer device assembly lines and automatically fill orders at fast-food chains.

"Some are even embedded into other form factors such as automobiles so they are essentially transparent." He points to the robotics used to power self-park features in newer cars as an example.

As robots themselves evolve, so do their controllers. Tobe predicts that tablets, smartphones and other handhelds will become a common mechanism for training and manipulating robots.

He also believes that although nowadays robotics technology is incredibly proprietary, it will soon open up. "As the marketplace broadens, robotic operating systems will become more open source and more capable," Tobe says.

Sensors and sensibility

In the past, the field of robotics was constrained by a pre-conceived notion of a specific form factor and function. Dictionary.com defines robotics as "any machine or mechanical device that operates automatically with humanlike skill."

In reality, robots are created to surpass humans in their abilities. Advanced robots have sensors, intelligence and can act with autonomy. For instance, Swoop Technology is developing embedded robotics to automatically keep vehicles, such as buses, within their lanes.

Carnegie Mellon University is studying the use of robots in tree and plant nurseries to automatically move containers around based on their optimal environments. 

Robots also are being tapped to improve medicine and, more specifically, surgeries. Peter Allen, professor of computer science at Columbia University in New York, is developing robotics to improve minimally invasive surgeries. The miniaturization of essential components such as cameras and motors, sophistication of the software, and decrease in price make robotics attractive for single-port surgeries.

"You're soon going to see a whole class of small, disposable, inexpensive systems that will do simple surgeries such as gall bladder and kidney removal, and hysterectomies," Allen says. "The main impact will be fewer incisions and, therefore, less overall trauma to the patient." The camera-laden robots also increase visibility within the surgical area.

Already Allen has licensed a robotic device he co-created with a physician that, according to Columbia University, "pans, tilts, and zooms to generate 2-D or 3-D images, and tracks surgical instruments automatically."

He expects robotic technology to become an integral part of medical school curricula within the next five years.

Allen foresees robotics reducing the number of staff needed at each surgery and alleviating the overall strain on surgeons. "While it's doubtful that you'll ever take the tools completely out of a surgeon's control - you want humans in the loop in case of an error - surgeons can form a partnership with the technology," he says.

The Robot Report's Tobe agrees, noting university research, including studies at Stanford University, on operating rooms of the future. Some are testing replacement of scrub nurses, anesthesiologists and other ancillary players with robots while surgeons navigate robotic arms by virtually mimicking gestures.

Like many of his idols and peers, Tobe is convinced that the collision of biotechnology, nanotechnology and robotics is bound to be life-changing.

Deep dive

At Boston-based Bluefin Robotics, System Engineer Mikell Taylor is singularly focused on pairing robotics with autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) for enhanced surveillance at sea and in port.

The AUVs, being developed for defense, commercial and scientific applications, are intended to obviate the need for divers and dolphins to survey the risk of potential areas. For instance, AUVs equipped with robotics can ferret out unexploded mines in the middle of the ocean so a charge can be dropped to neutralize them. Also, AUVs can circle ships near dock, investigating their hulls and detecting danger. If there is potential for harm, officials can keep them away from shore.

Another mission: Surveillance runs. AUVs are capable of gathering gigabytes or more of critical data through sonar images, camera stills and other high-tech components. Data snippets and alerts can either be transmitted in real time over low-bandwidth acoustic modems, periodically from surface-to-satellite connections, or downloaded in full over high-speed links upon the AUV's return.

Unlike their brethren, predator drones and unmanned tanks, Taylor says AUVs won't be used in military engagements. "The robotic AUVs won't replace weapons such as torpedoes because they can't yet react to the environment. They're autonomous, but not intelligent," Taylor says.

Like Allen, she believes that projects like those she is working on are possible today because of the reduction in robotics costs.

Companies like Heartland Robotics and iRobot (maker of the infamous Roomba automated vacuum) continue their quest to commoditize robots by making them less expensive. Heartland Robotics, for instance, wants to offer a robotic manufacturing assistant for $15,000, according to Tobe. "Most businesses are smaller and if they can maximize the workforce they have by adding in robots, why not? It's a way to stay competitive," he says.

Microsoft also is focused on cost, aiming to get robotics operating systems to a broad community at an affordable price. The company recently released the fourth version of its Robotics Developer Studio platform. The goal for Microsoft, according to Robotics' Team Leader Stathis Papaefstathiou, is to create a comprehensive robotics platform that integrates with Microsoft Kinect camera and depth sensor, which is currently found in the Xbox 360, and the Windows Azure cloud service, which could be used to support large computations.

"Although there are a lot of developers writing robotics applications, they are not experts in that domain. So we want to provide the robotics development infrastructure that they will need," he says. For instance, some devices will have real-time operations and basic operations take place on the robot itself. However, if more sophisticated analysis is required, such as assessing visuals from the camera, cloud services could offer an assist.

Roger Arrick, owner of mobile robot maker Arrick Robotics, contends price will be a determining factor in the overall success of robotics. "Robotics will have the most impact where it makes the most financial sense," he says. He points to manufacturing and the military, both of which have high labor costs and liability. "Ultimately, we might see wars fought robots against robots. Already there are the beginnings of this with drones and remotely operated tanks," he says.

The battery barrier

There is one element, though, that still plagues the robotics field: batteries. Arrick says a high-energy density, low-weight, non-toxic battery with a fast charge time would constitute a major breakthrough. "This would change the world of robotics very quickly because current battery technology is very heavy and this has a chain-reaction effect upon design," he says. Updated batteries would result in lighter exoskeletons, longer lives for technology such as planetary rovers, and more air vehicles, he adds.

Battery life is just one of many obstacles that students participating in FIRST Tech Challenge, a head-to-head robotics competition, tackle. Ken Johnson, the program's director, says FIRST, which comprises 250,000 students (mostly high-school age) and 90,000 volunteers, incorporates the myriad skills necessary to fully comprehend the complex world of robotics. 

"We force programming, design, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and other skills to come together in a real-life context. Where most of these areas are usually theoretical, robotics focuses on the practical," Johnson says.

He sees kids coming to the program, which has been made popular by pop culture icons such as Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.I.Am, with a heightened awareness of robotics. "Students are interacting with robotics or automated subsystems in their everyday lives, such as automatic checkout lines," he says.

He expects current FIRST participants, who will be out in the workforce in five years or so, to have a better appreciation of how robots can complement human labor. "They'll succeed in the working world because they'll know how to marry processes with the technology," Johnson says. "Instead of thinking robots replace humans, they'll know that robots and automation can make humans more productive."

Woodie Flowers, a national adviser for FIRST and Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that the next generation of workers will have to be able to do something robots can't in order to succeed, something that can't be automated.

As an example, he envisions that someday, patients visiting their doctors will first be interviewed and examined by a robot that can collect verbal and visual signs and symptoms. The robot then will present that information, along with intelligence gathered from medical databases, to the doctor so that he can quickly home in on a diagnoses and consult with the patient on a cure.

"Five years from now robots will be far more ubiquitous and we'll depend on them in a much more fundamental way," Flowers says.

Gittlen is a freelance business and technology writer in the greater Boston area. She can be reached at sgittlen@verizon.net.

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