The past 12 months have been outstanding for our industry, what with market researchers putting forth multibillion dollar forecasts for growth, large companies such as Toyota entering the market in a serious way, and the White House recognizing robotics as an industry key to the nation’s economic competitiveness.
Many trends emerged during the year, of course. And a quick browse through the content on our Web site should serve as a reminder that this is an industry at a critical tipping point. Years from now, when robots are doing everything from stocking grocery shelves to plowing farmers’ fields, we may well look back on 2011 as the year when robots captured our collective imaginations and sparked a growth surge to rival every other technological revolution in history.
Here are our picks for some of the top trends of the past year:
Rise of the Cloud
The cloud is having an impact in every area of IT. But its influence on robotics could wind up being the most profound. Just as humans have advanced throughout history by exchanging information, the cloud promises to enable robots to learn from each other. The cloud received a hefty dose of legitimacy when industry heavyweight Motoman launched its own cloud-based service.
Microsoft ‘Kinects’ With Robotics Developers
Robots are only as good as the sensors that enable them to understand and navigate through the real world. Giving robots that ability has always been hugely expensive. Until Kinect arrived, that is. Microsoft invested millions in its development, resulting in a device even kids could afford, but comparable to some of the best imaging sensors on the market. Roboticists were quick to see the applications in their field, and Microsoft was equally quick to aid their efforts.
Birth of Robotics App Stores
The phenomenal growth of mobile devices over the past few years would never have been possible without legions of developers, each hoping for an “Angry Birds” -like marketplace hit. Over the past several months, a few entrepreneurs have sought to create robotic app marketplaces, loosely modeled on Apple’s incredibly successful iTunes store. As the ecosystem of app developers and marketplaces matures, expect everyday robots to do astounding things, all via simple, low-cost downloads.
With outfits like the U.S. military promoting research to make improved prosthetic devices, mind control has moved from science fiction to workbench reality. Can the fully functional hand Luke Skywalker received following his joust with Darth Vader be far off?
An End to Baldness
Hair today, gone tomorrow. Baldness – except perhaps in ancient Egypt – has always been a male curse. But a company called Restoration Robotics has developed a solution, one which suggests that years from now many more robotic cosmetic surgical procedures could become routine.
Not a month went by in 2011, it seemed, without a company announcing a new telepresence robot, designed to give all of us the ability to navigate freely through hospitals, schools, and factory floors, anywhere in the world, and simply by using a laptop or smart phone. Among its many potential uses, telepresence promises huge cost savings and care improvement in the field of medicine, which is no doubt why iRobot and InTouch Health announced a collaboration this summer to investigate the possibilities.
New Freedom for the Physically Impaired
Did someone involved with Defense Department R&D watch Sigourney Weaver fight off her alien nemesis with a robotic exoskeleton and think, “That’s what soldiers need to tote heavy loads over long distances?” We may never know. But what is certain is that exoskeleton research by the military has been adapted by medical device makers in order to give those with physical impairments a chance to stand (and walk) tall.
Where’s My Knight Rider Car?
It’s coming. Starting with successful, ongoing tests by Google and others, cars have proven their ability to drive themselves. Self-parking vehicles are now commonplace, and a Volkswagon experiment reveals semi-autonomous driving may come our way, soon.
The Search for Unified Standards
Bill Gates’ oft-quoted article in Scientific American lamented the fact that there was no unified development standard in robotics. In 2011, researchers around the world were working to change that. In the wake of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, research groups are developing methods enabling robots to work together better during rescue and recovery efforts. But perhaps an even more far-reaching development is occurring with the open source Robotics Operating System (ROS). When CoroWare its support of the platform, others quickly joined the community.
Year of the Drones
When Iran showed off a captured U.S. surveillance drone, many rightfully feared the aircraft’s secrets would be sold to Russia or China, a blow to national security to be sure. But if the Iranians had captured the pilot of a downed conventional aircraft instead, an international crisis would have instantly ensued, a fact which illustrates just one of the advantages drones provide our fighting forces: They do their jobs without risking the lives of American soldiers. Little wonder the military is looking at ever more advanced and capable flying vehicles, such as robotic helicopters and blimps.Read More