Robots invade the real world

From C-3PO to the Terminator to Star Trek’s Data, robots have entertained us on the big screen for years. But, unlike our cinematic cyborg heroes, the real thing has been something of a disappointment because the technology has failed to live up to the Hollywood hype. But this is not true anymore. Robots have arrived.

“Things are moving fast,” says Catherine Simon, president and CEO of InnoEcho, a high tech, robotics consulting firm that also hosts Innorobo, Europe’s only international robotics summit. “If we think too short-term, robotics can be scary, as autonomous machines are increasingly entering our workspace, displacing and, sometimes, replacing human workers. Nevertheless, there is no going back: everyone agrees that, in the mid to long term, robotics will forever change the way we live.

According to Simon, Innorobo 2015 showcased 350 visionaries from the worldwide robotics industry, which included hundreds of products in the fields of medicine, communications, transportation, warehousing, utilities, infrastructure, education, and more.

Here are some of the robotic innovations coming your way:

Medical: bio-mechatronics

“Healthcare robots assist medical personnel in performing certain tedious tasks such as transporting medicines or samples and lifting patients into and out of bed. In addition to enabling minimally invasive surgery and more efficient rehabilitation, some medical and health robotics can potentially erase the word disability from our vocabulary thanks to bio-mechatronic devices such as bionic limbs that function like natural limbs,” adds Simon.


Bio-mechatronics is the revolutionary work of Hugh Herr, head of the Bio-mechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab. Herr, a double amputee, combined human physiology with electro-mechanics to create bionic limbs for people with physical disabilities. Herr’s bionic achievements include a gait-adaptive knee prostheses for transfemoral amputees; a variable impedance ankle-foot exoskeleton for a gait pathology called drop foot caused by cerebral palsy, stroke, or multiple sclerosis; and his own bionic legs (the first foot and calf system).

Aethon, Inc. is another robotics company that focuses on the healthcare industry. Using autonomous mobile robots, Aethon automates the transportation of heavy materials such as bulk laundry, cleaning products, and clinical supplies. In addition, these TUG machines can safely move hazardous waste,” says Forrester analyst JP Gownder.

Aethon’s robots also deliver medicines as part of an Internet of Things scenario. And, since regulations require hospitals to track all drugs, particularly narcotics; Aethon’s robotics, which have RFID chips and barcodes, enable real-time tracking of the hospitals’ medicines.

Transportation: Smart garages and warehousing: pick-and-pack operations

Gownder notes that progress in the transportation sector has also leaped forward. Smart garage vendors such as Boomerang and Serva-TS provide some different, but interesting approaches to the robotic garage technology. In both cases, robots come to your car, pick it up, and park it elsewhere in order to maximize the usable space inside a garage.

Boomerang, which functions like an elevator, calls its service the Robotic Valet, and targets new construction in locales with extremely expensive real estate such as Miami, Chicago, and San Francisco. Serva-TS functions more like a warehouse forklift that shuffles vehicles around the parking lots like one shuffles a deck of cards. The Serva-TS system powers the Düsseldorf airport and has the ability to retrofit older garages, gaining 40 percent of usable space in the process. (Watch a of actual robots in action.)

“Robotics are ready for prime time,” Gownder says, “Offering businesses more efficient ways to solve problems and create new value for customers, as well.”

Forrester analyst JP Gownder

For example, Gownder notes that Amazon’s $775 million purchase of Kiva Systems in 2012 gave the retail titan a powerful robotic tool to drive efficiency in its warehouse operations. And startup Fetch Robotics automates existing warehouses using sensors, beacons, maps, and labels. Its robots aid in pick-and-pack operations by following humans around to carry baskets of goods.

Soft robots

“This may seem radical, but robots really aren’t the story,” counters Gerald Van Hoy, senior technology research analyst at Gartner. “Ninety nine percent of the time, they’re just a platform for carrying other forms of technology.”

Hoy argues that what’s exciting about UAV/drones is their capacity to extend our sensing capabilities. And, high definition cameras, thermal sensors, and sensor arrays are all more exciting than the actual machines that host these technologies. Similarly, development of the software that allows the robot to be autonomous and process images and sensing data is much more exciting than the platform.

“But that said, I do think soft robotics is very exciting,” adds Hoy; “that is, the use of non-traditional materials to build robots or, at the very least, cover them. Essentially, these robots (also called cobots) could work in similar environments as humans do.”

Hoy also contends that robots equipped with 3D printing capabilities can manufacture, then build things from raw materials. Companies could send a single robot or a swarm of robots to a remote location (or even another planet) and instruct them to build structures and/or other robots and machines that could all perform remote functions.

Collaborative robotics

“It’s true, one of the most important applications of robotics involves building systems that are adaptable enough to work in unstructured environments,” concedes Carl Vause, CEO of Soft Robotics. “Current industrial robots are very good at performing repetitive tasks with speed and precision, such as welding a car frame or stacking cartons of the same size and weight.”

However, according to Vause, applications that involve agriculture and advanced manufacturing require robotic systems that can adapt to items of varying shapes, sizes, and weights, and must have the skill and dexterity to do so safely. The two key areas of innovation are the fields of collaborative robotics and soft robotic technology.

Unlike most industrial robots that are shielded in safety cages, collaborative robots are designed to work safely alongside humans, explains Vause, which means they can assemble electronics, pass parts or tools to humans, and automate routine tasks in testing environments.

Boston’s Rethink Robotics and Denmark’s Universal Robots have brought the first collaborative robots to market. And industry giants ABB Robotics (supplier of industrial robots & modular manufacturing systems/services) and KUKA Systems (human-robot collaboration technologies) have also recently launched collaborative robotic systems to meet the growing market need.

“Collaborative robots have some of the same limitations that industrial robots have,” Vause says, “As they seek to bring a greater level of adaptability to enable new markets. Industries such as fresh produce packing and bakeries have had limited success with robotics due to the lack of a robotic ‘hand’ that can handle the wide array of soft and easily damaged products.”

With adaptable robots, the industry could address concerns regarding labor shortages and food contamination. The impact of food-borne illness on the produce industry has compelled the USDA to make automation in food processing one of its highest priorities. And, soft robotics is the solution.

Soft robotics systems are made of elastomeric materials such as rubber and polyurethanes and can be washed and sanitized. Harvard University researchers have produced soft hands that can safely interact with fruits, vegetables, and other easily damaged objects such as consumer electronics; plus these soft hands can function in a variety of environments.


“We, at Soft Robotics, Inc., are currently applying this technology to pilot projects in food handling and manufacturing applications,” adds Vause.

Humanoid robots

Korea and Japan are currently focusing more on humanoid robots that provide services such as waiters, butlers, bellhops, teachers, stewards, entertainers, etc. One product called Geminoid robots are clones of their creators. These bots are used to train dentists and host booths at conventions. In fact, Japan hopes to one day place a service robot in every home on the planet.

Even though these robots look humanoid and are often cute, they are not all designed for household chores and entertainment. Toyota and Honda developed walking assisted devices for the elderly and physically impaired, and Cyberdyne’s HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) system is, in fact, the only robotic, remedial device that teaches the brain how to move the limbs it replaces. In addition to the medical applications, there are several full-body HAL systems in the research and development phase that enhance and/or protect the human body for situations such as disaster recovery, military and harsh environments, or in circumstances where individuals might need superior strength and endurance.

In Summary

The continued proliferation of robotics, androids, and autonomous devices is inevitable. It’s the next logical step in human evolution, and there really is no going back. We now have military bots that carry heavy weapons and equipment and disarm bombs, self-guided navigation systems, and throwaway spybots by companies such as iRobot and Recon Robotics. Google has driverless autonomous cars; Northrop Grumman has a robot plane; Liquid Robotics has self-steering bots that patrol our oceans; Lockheed Martin has an unmanned, unarmed K-MAX chopper; and the CyberKnife System (by Accuray) uses robotic precision to shoot beams of radiation—that are specifically shaped like the targeted tumors—to destroy unhealthy tissue and reduce collateral radiation for the surrounding areas.

In the very near future, robotics, bionics, and bio-mechatronics could produce armies of super soldiers, super heroes, and super androids that take all the risks of policemen and firemen and fight all the battles of sailors, pilots, and soldiers.

As Daniel Theobald, CTO and co-founder of Vecna Technologies once said, “Robots should handle the meaningless tasks so we can do the meaningful ones.”

Sartain is a freelance writer. She can be reached at


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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