When I think of robots, the first thing that comes to my mind is Rosie the Robot maid from the Jetsons or R2-D2 and C3PO from Star Wars. In real life my experience has been with the iRobot line of cleaning solutions and its well know Roomba  and Sony’s AIBO – the robotic pet – which was put down in 2006.

Robotics have been around for decades and are widely used in military, manufacturing and medical/healthcare applications. Think the Mars Exploration Rover or even the robots that are used for bomb disposal. 

But it’s the new combination of mobile technology, broadband and devices that are moving robotics into the mainstream.

One of the areas with a lot of activity is in remote telepresence robots. These devices allow a person to move virtually within a remote site by using a remote-controlled wheeled robot that is typically equipped with a camera, microphone, loudspeaker and screen displaying live video of the remote user’s face.

Their ability to move around sets them apart from typical fixed telepresence systems and  although they do face challenges - mostly associated with obstacles – such as closed doors and stairwells – they allow users to participate in meetings and events at any location.

Some of the systems utilize tablets as the screen, while others have fixed screens. Additionally, some systems allow users to connect to it using Skype or another video conferencing application and then control its movement from their desktop or through a smart phone application.

According to the developers of these products – office workers quickly adapt to having one of these robots in the office – although they may not be too happy to have it follow them around.

On the other hand – the locomotive capability can come in very handy for a number of applications – such as letting a home-buyer tour a distant property, security patrols and remote surveillance of homes and buildings; or at trade shows, where someone off site is able to engage with visitors in a booth and to virtually explore the show floor.

Most of these systems communicate with W-Fi – requiring a strong and secure Wi-Fi network in the enterprise.

While many of these systems are designed for business applications, there are a number of companies working on similar solutions for home use and are primarily focused on Telemedicine/Home Health Care as well as Elder Care applications.

NEC’s PaPeRo (short for Partner-type-Personal-Robot) can serve a household in a number of ways such as a nanny, a house sitter or even as a companion. For example, family members could send text messages to the robot, which would read them aloud to their grandparents. To further the capabilities of PaPeRo, NEC recently introduced its partner program which will leverage a federated cloud to allow 3rd parties to develop applications for the robot.

 Zoom, Zoom, Zoom!

On the fun side of robotics are a whole range of products that are aimed primarily at kids, but likely to be used by adults just the same.

The Anki Drive has gotten A LOT of press. It uses Artificial Intelligence and robotics to provide a video game experience in the physical world. Consisting of two cars and a track, each car has been engineered to think: it knows where it is, makes decisions, and to drive itself. A player can use their Apple devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad) to take control of a car to play against friends.

Each car has a sensor system, steering mechanism, and the controls software. A key element of the sensor system is the small camera fitted to the bottom-front of the car, which tells the car precisely where on the road it is located and allows the software to make very fast decisions on how to steer. The controls software allows the Anki DRIVE cars to drive very precisely and fast, but also handle things like drifting.

Besides Anki – other cool products include Lego’s Mindstorms - which allows kids to actually build a robot as well as products such as HexBugs.

If Google and Amazon are doing it – then it must be right?

Over the past year Google has been aggressively acquiring robotics companies – seven in fact – which are capable of creating technologies needed to build a mobile, dexterous, perhaps even humanoid robot. Imagine a driverless Google Car equipped with a robot to make deliveries?  Looks like the Johnny Cab may not be that far-fetched after all.

Amazon, in the meantime, is testing drones to deliver goods to improve efficiency and speed in getting products to consumers. These “octocopters” can carry as much as 5 pounds within a 10-mile radius of an Amazon fulfillment center – helping to support the “need to have it NOW” generation with 30 minute delivery

While both of these developments remain experiments and concepts – it certainly sets the stage for where technology is headed and how it will continue to change the way we live, work and play.

Evolving Technology Key to Robotics

Advancements in processing power, sensor technology, wireless technology and cloud computing are only a few of the ingredients that are helping take robotics into the mainstream and become part of the Internet of Things.

While humanoids are likely well into the future – robotics will play a key role beyond manufacturing as part of the autonomous and smart home as well as in applications associated with the enterprise (telepresence), home health care, security, retail and elder care.

Rise of the Machines, indeed.