Earlier this year we reported that robotics had topped Upwork’s hottest-skills list for freelancers in the U.S. market in 2017—and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. Spending for robotics-related projects is predicted to more than double in the next couple of years, and exciting new inventions, applications, and opportunities for robotic technology continue to pop up. So what are some of these new breakthroughs?
While robotics for automation purposes continues to sweep the tech landscape for better or for worse, that’s not all the latest round of robots are designed to do. Some can go where humans can’t safely go, while others lend helping hands to humans doing their jobs. To create these breakthrough bots, teams are tapping skilled experts in high-tech fields ranging from aerospace and mechanical engineering to computer programming and artificial intelligence.
Tech aside, some of them are just plain fun. Let’s take a look.
Robots designed to improve our quality of life
There’s a whole category of robots designed to pitch in to make life a little better, ranging from the fun and trivial to the life- and planet-saving. The Roomba vacuum kicked off the household-robot trend by giving us one less chore to worry about. Each year, the Consumer Electronics Show unveils consumer-focused robots offering solutions to common gripes and nagging problems we face as humans, big and small—even assembling a notoriously complicated piece of Ikea furniture.
Honda has created a disaster response robot that can wedge itself into tight places humans can’t in order to locate survivors or clear away wreckage. Lifeguard drones such as the Little Ripper can autonomously scout for nearby sharks and drop life rafts, tree-planting drones can find optimal places to drop seeds, precision robots help surgeons carry out delicate medical procedures, and the Thermite RS1-T3 cobot helps firefighters put out raging fires in tight spaces.
Robotics isn’t always so serious, however; there are robots designed to bake cakes, brew up a cup of coffee, and even pick tomatoes.
Voyaging robots that explore final frontiers
Our limitations as humans—even the basics, such as needing to breathe oxygen—have kept certain parts of our planet off-limits for exploration. It’s reported we’ve explored only about 5% of the ocean floor, making it as alien to us as the surface of Mars.
Overcoming these limitations is the impetus behind Shell Ocean Discovery, which is in the finalist stages of its XPRIZE competition to create deep-sea, ocean-floor exploration bots. Such bots will generate bathymetric maps of the bottom of the sea, giving us a better idea of what’s down there. Canadian company Nautilus Minerals has created deep-sea mining and excavation robots to harvest rich mineral deposits on the ocean floor.
Closer to the surface, MIT has created the SoFi robotic fish that blends in enough to do some up-close underwater research of marine life. SoFi was partially created with 3D printing and is a standout in the category for its ability to swim in three directions.
It’s a dirty job, but some bots gotta do it
Sometimes going where humans can’t (or don’t want to) go is enough to warrant robotic assistance. But more often, it’s the tedious, grimy tasks we actively avoid that are best suited to robots, such as scrubbing the inside of industrial-size tanks. Urban Rivers is a startup working to create a trashbot to clean up the Chicago River, controlled remotely by anyone at any time via a web app.
Another underwater robot has been invented to help pick off predatory, poisonous lionfish that are taking over habitats around the world and are risky to handle.
Toshiba created a camera-equipped robot to help out in another situation dangerous to humans: It probed the Fukushima nuclear reactors after they sustained damage from an earthquake and tsunami in 2011. It’s not the only robot used at Fukushima, either—a swim robot was deployed last year to scope out the submerged reactor.
Beating a worker shortage with construction robots
Robotics is also evolving to help economies around the globe. Where there are worker shortages or challenging tasks, collaborative robots can help streamline work and boost productivity.
Collaborative robots are particularly important to construction, where sites are tricky to navigate due to uneven ground and lots of obstacles. Collaborative bots are equipped with mobility, safety, and spacial-awareness capabilities, which makes them more effective in construction applications. Some are designed to help with repetitive tasks on construction sites, such as Construction Robotics’ SAM100 collaborative bricklaying bot.
Others can help out when humans simply don’t have enough hands. Where a worker would have to use one hand to hold a board, the other to hold a hammer, and his or her mouth to hold spare nails, Shimizu’s Robo-Buddy can free up a hand by holding a board in place while a worker bolts it.
All in all, construction robotics are helping to alleviate some of the safety risks and project delays caused by the worker shortage in this industry, especially in urban high-rise construction.
The future is here: autonomous robots
Where robotics is really starting to revolutionize productivity is in the autonomous category. Because robots are intelligent enough to carry out tasks on their own, without a human controlling them, they’re that much more helpful in real-world applications.
The Roomba, for example, falls into the autonomous category because it’s a “set it and forget it” technology. But that just scratches the surface of autonomous robotics. If you haven’t watched footage of Boston Dynamics’ flipping Atlas robot or its door-opening Robodog, check it out—it’s an incredible demonstration of just how far robotics has come. Biped and quadruped bots are more capable than ever when it comes to walking, navigating tricky terrain with obstacle avoidance, and uprighting themselves. Self-driving cars are already here but will depend on cutting-edge AI to be safe and successful before widespread adoption is possible.