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SpirE-Journal 2014 Q3

Robots : Changing industries, expanding possibilities

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Robots : Changing industries, expanding possibilities

Robots are now prevalent across many industries, not only heavy manufacturing. Today’s robots are more precise and can be controlled remotely, which is why there is a preference for them over error-prone humans in some parts of the services industry. With over 179,000 industrial robots sold worldwide in 2013, robots are now set to conquer a new arena – the household.

What is a robot?

The first thing that comes to mind when the word robot is uttered is a machine that imitates a human being, such as the androids from Hollywood’s Star Wars or Terminator movies. The reality, though, is that the hundreds of thousands of industrial robots operating in the world resemble high-tech machinery more than high-tech humanoids.

A robot is defined as a programmable, self-controlled device with electrical, electronic or mechanical units. Robots have some advantages over humans when it comes to work – they have better physical endurance and are more adept at working under uncomfortable or dangerous conditions.

The word robot was derived from a Czechoslovakian word meaning servant, slave or forced labor and in 1921 it was aptly used in Czech playwright Karel Capek’s play. However, even as early as 270BC, ancient Greek engineer Ctesibus started tinkering with movable figures made with organs and water clocks.

Benefits of robots

Robots are assisting humans in all kinds of tasks across various industries – each fulfilling a specified purpose. And in the following industries, robots are becoming increasingly prominent.

Industrial manufacturing

The market for industrial robots is expected to reach USD41 billion by 2020 at an average annual growth rate of 5.2 per cent. Industrial robots play a vital role in automation, aiding in simplified manufacturing and assembly operations around the globe. In the industrial arena, robots have numerous advantages – such as high speed, accuracy and ability to function in harsh environments. Robots can be more cost-effective as well, compared to hiring human beings. With industrial robots selling at an annual rate of 162,000 as of 2014, their presence is bound to increase.

Military

Soldiers often perform risky operations such as walking through minefields, deactivating bombs and clearing enemy-occupied buildings. In this arena, robots offer military commanders the ability to protect the lives of their soldiers. For instance, the US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan involved the deployment of more than 25,000 robotics systems ranging from ground to aerial systems.

Medical

More than two million operations across the globe have been successfully performed by around 3,000 da Vinci surgical robots since the year 2000.

The contribution of robots in the field of medical sciences is very considerable. Robots now undertake diagnosis, surgery and health monitoring. Robots also aid in restoring the health of patients. More than two million operations across the globe have been successfully performed by around 3,000 da Vinci surgical robots since the year 2000. These robots take up very little space to set-up, with their ‘hands’ acting as high-precision instruments.

Agriculture

Even agriculture, the oldest and most essential of economic activities, is being revolutionized by robots. The global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, so agricultural production must double to match the increasing demand for food and bioenergy. The use of robots for farm activities is already well-established. The Lettuce Bot Roomba, for example, specializes in weeding. There are also self-driving tractors and drones that herd cattle as well as spray pesticides.

Space

Deep space is becoming more crowded with man-made objects, as China, the US, Europe, Japan and even India launch probes deep into the solar system and beyond. This arena is well adapted to the penetration of robots. Such robots excel in repetitive, extended and high-precision tasks in dangerous conditions. Robotic technology is enabling new frontiers in unmanned space exploration – for example visits to the planet Mars.

Robots closer to home than ever
Most people desire to have household robots to do cleaning and ironing of clothes.

According to studies undertaken in 2013, 55 percent of people are willing to use robots in the home. Most people desire to have household robots to do cleaning and ironing of clothes. 15 percent said they would be happy to have robots drive their cars while only 13 per cent envisage using robots for child-minding.

The Roomba vacuum cleaner – launched in 2002 – has sold more than 2 million units around the world.

The primary domain of home robotics continues to be vacuuming and cleaning. The Roomba vacuum cleaner – launched in 2002 – has sold more than 2 million units around the world.

Researchers are developing more robots that can easily do all kinds of menial chores in the home. For instance, Twendy-One – unveiled by Waseda University in Tokyo and launched in 2007 – is capable of helping with household work and nursing care. A modified version is due for release in 2015.

Most domestic robots currently in use are small and able to perform only very specific tasks such as the following:

House-hold cleaning

Robotic vacuum cleaners are making their way into many households. iRobot introduced a new robot called Mirra 530 in 2013 to help clean a swimming pool – both on and below the surface.

Security

Domestic robots in security are furnished with a standard camera, microphone and speakers. These robots can alert owners in case of breach of security with the help of internet connectivity. For Instance, Rovio, a security robot launched in 2008 at a retail price of USD170, guards houses. The Rovio also demonstrates how affordable home robotics has become.

Entertainment

Robots in entertainment are used to stimulate emotions. For instance, Dream Cat Celeb is a robo-pet with touch sensors along its head, chest, back and tail. It mimics all the facial expressions and sounds of a cat. It was launched in 2014 and priced at USD117.

Elderly care

Robots are changing the way we age. Not only can they help perform chores for seniors – they can serve as great companions – helping to fight the loneliness and isolation which is one of the major challenges faced by the elderly . Japan’s government allotted USD1.9 billion in the 2013 fiscal budget to assist in developing and promoting the use of robots designed specifically to take care of senior citizens as this is a growing area of concern as the number of Japanese aged 65 or above is expected to increase by 7.1 million between 2010 and 2025.

What makes robots so popular and useful?

Easy to mass produce

It is easier to build robots than to recruit and train humans. The International Federation of Robotics estimates that from 2015 to 2017 robot installations will increase by 12 per cent a year on average.

Reduced energy needs

Robots can be more productive, more cost-effective and less error-prone than human employees, whether it comes to high-precision surgery or fixing automotive parts in a manufacturing plant.

Age is not a factor

Robots are exempt from burdensome biological effects. They remain immune to diseases, making them ideal for rescue missions in contaminated areas.

Ideal space travellers

Robots are ideal for deep space exploration. They do not require extra systems for food, air, water and sanitation, thus rendering the mission lighter and less prone to damage.

In spite of the buzz surrounding robot technology, many people remain sceptical and apprehensive. Robot adoption is not all a bed of roses. Robots can be costly and generate a slow return on investment.

Moreover, robots only make economic sense when human manpower is expensive, which is certainly not the case everywhere in the world. According to a 2014 study, 41 per cent of U.S. manufacturers rejected robot technology due to high cost and minimal requirement. Smaller companies were even more reluctant to adopt robotics due to high entry costs and insufficient funding.

Future outlook

The robotics industry is poised for an influx of global investment, with the volume of robot installations set to rise by 12 per cent a year in the next few years .

Demand for robots is highest in South Korea and Japan. Approximately 40 per cent of industrial robots are used in the automotive sector where robot density (number of robots per 10,000 manufacturing workers) is 1,000 in five countries (Japan, France the U.S., Italy and Germany).

Robots continue to be used across various industries ranging from heavy-duty Industrial work, house-hold chores, military, medical field and farming to elderly.

However, it is in the house-hold that the greatest expansion of robotics is poised to take place. By taking over more household chores, robots may be able to free up more time for human beings – particularly women – to return to part-time or full-time employment, thus unleashing a great source of economic growth.

Even though most people remain open to using robots, apprehensions remain. The fear of human jobs being destroyed is ever-present. 35 per cent of US manufacturers see robotics technology as generating new high-skilled jobs while 28 per cent see it as displacing workers. In an era where many countries are facing the prospect of an aging society, robots might be seen as taking away jobs from older workers in particular.

Robotics holds tremendous potential for good in the economy and society. But as a form of a technology it is socially and morally neutral – much like the internal combustion engine, nuclear power and the internet. As with any other technology, it will be up to policy-makers, civil society and the general public to work with the private sector so as to maximize the good effects while minimizing the bad ones.

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