The Threat and Promise of Robotics

Carl Weinschenk
Slide Show

The Robotic Automation Landscape of Today and Tomorrow

Last week was a big one in the world of robotics. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Defense (DARPA and DoD) held its annual Robotics Challenge.

The winner was Team KAIST from South Korea, according to The IEEE Spectrum. Its entrant, a humanoid “named” DRC-HUBO, beat 22 competitors in the competition, which was held in Pomona, California. Its winning characteristic is an ability to switch from walking biped to wheeled machine.

The category is expanding rapidly. The collaborative robotics category is one in which humans and robots work side by side. ABI Research suggests that the robotics sector will increase by about a factor of 10 – from about $95 million to more than $1 billion -- between this year and 2020.


The key markets will be in the manufacturing sector. More specifically, they will be electronic manufacturing, small-to-medium sized manufacturers, and manufacturers whose goal is agile production approaches. Dan Kara, ABI’s practice director for Robotics, described an active landscape in which products are coming from established and small firms. The smaller firms with proven technology are being acquired by the larger ones, he said.

An interesting backgrounder on the DARPA robotics competition notes that the agency was created in 1958 by President Eisenhower in response to the Soviet’s launch of the Sputnik spacecraft. The DARPA Robotics Challenge was inspired by the Fukushima disaster in Japan four years ago. The key, Lindsey Gilpin writes, is finding better ways of exchanging data:

Robots, of course, can travel and work in areas that may be too dangerous or toxic for humans, and so have a lot of potential as responders. The idea is to improve the way robots and humans interact when the communication is degraded. To simulate this, communication is turned off during part of the challenge.

Gilpin offers other insights into the competition in general and the state of robotics in particular, including the assessment that the level of robot autonomy is still low.

Of many sectors of robotic computing, some work alone, some with each other, and some with humans. They are virtually impervious to harsh environments and can save humans tremendous trouble. Machine Design provides a good example of how robots are used in exploration:

In the Coordinated Robotics expedition, the Schmidt Ocean Institute aims to create an army of robots that can be left unattended to take photos, survey specified areas, and map out regions of the ocean floor. By replacing divers with robots that can coordinate to conduct specific tasks, future expeditions will experience reduced cost, effort, time, and resources for detailed ocean exploration.

The age of robotics is upon us. There seem to be two basic categories: Robots that do things that humans can’t or don’t want to do -- such as going into burning buildings, fighting wars, repairing undersea cables -- and those that save money by taking jobs away from people. Assembly line jobs are a good example of this category.

We humans are anxious to see which type predominates.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.



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