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March 06, 2019      

The robotics industry is reshaping how various sectors do business. Robotic machines reduce the need for humans to engage in manual tasks, and the equipment doesn’t need breaks like humans do.

Robots are already widespread in industries like manufacturing, but many pioneering companies are looking for unconventional ways to use them. Depending on how those projects go, there could be even more diverse uses for machines that benefit the robotics sector and other industries. Here are some experimental uses for robotics that we’re excited for in the near future.

1. Robots as teaching assistants

Teachers are starting to use robots in their classrooms. These machines could be particularly advantageous for educators in larger-than-average classrooms or those that perpetually feel they don’t have adequate time for face-to-face interactions with students.

The robots don’t replace teachers, but instead directly interact with students and help supplement the subjects educators cover. In one study, people who used robots to learn Russian had better recall abilities than those who used avatars.

There were tests involving robots in Chinese kindergartens, too. A robot named Keeko rolled around between students as they played and asked them questions to help them discover and retain new information. This application could pay off for teachers, as well as parents who are interested in stimulating childhood learning with robots.

2. Robots that kill germs

Many people are germophobes, which explains the popularity of alcohol-based hand sanitizers. However, even as people clean their hands, sometimes they wonder about the germs on linens in hotels or other surfaces.

One of many experimental uses for robotics is the CleanseBot

Source: CleanseBot

The CleanseBot is a new invention marketed as a robot that kills germs on hotel room sheets. Its creators raised money through crowdfunding, and more than 10,000 people contributed to help the project meet its goal. The team behind the portable robot is working on ways to commercialize the product.

There are other uses for germ-killing robots, particularly in the health care sector.

In mid-2018, news broke about a robot used to sanitize hospital rooms and do a better job than humans. Infection Prevention Technologies’ IPT 3200 robot disinfects a whole room in as little as 10 minutes. Operators move the robot with a handheld controller.

Xenex is another company offering this kind of robot. Its technology was featured in a study at the Mayo Clinic. The results showed that the hospital saw a 47 percent reduction rate in Clostridioides difficile (C.diff) infection rates after using the robots.

Germs are exceptionally dangerous in hospitals, especially with the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. As such, it makes sense why companies are bringing these robots to the market and facilities are showing interest.

3. Robots for crop harvesting

Robots with pneumatic arms use compressed air to move and complete tasks. Automatic crop harvesting is one of the uses for these robots, although it’s still in the experimental phase.

Some analysts believe the agriculture industry will increasingly use robots due to the way they could offer continual reliability and don’t require breaks or shifts scheduled for them.

A Belgian company called Octinion recently commercialized a strawberry picking robot. It says the machine is the first of its kind in the industry, but Dogtooth Robotics has a similar product that was released to the market earlier. Both companies believe their technology will help solve the agriculture industry’s labor shortage.

Elsewhere, tomato-picking robots are in development at Panasonic. They use image-recognition technology to determine the ripeness of a tomato. Abundant Robotics is yet another name in this space, and it focuses on apple-picking robots.

Most of the projects spearheaded by the companies here only got to trial phases, so it’s too early to say whether one or a few might reach market dominance. One of the keys to spurring widespread adoption may be to develop a crop harvester robot that can handle numerous kinds of produce via a single unit, and not require substantial downtime.

4. Robots that prevent social isolation in seriously ill students

Besides the robots mentioned above that help people learn, there is a robot called AV1 that takes the place of schoolchildren who cannot attend classes because of severe illnesses. Users can see and hear what’s happening in the classroom and raise their hands to answer questions. The robot even changes expressions to match how a student feels.

New experimental uses for robotics can help schoolchildren unable to attend school

No Isolation’s AV1 robot.
Source: No Isolation

Appropriately named No Isolation is the company offering AV1, but it’s not alone in this niche application for robots. The VGo and similar telepresence robots have been around for years, and parents with kids that use that robot speak favorably about how it allows their children to interact with fellow students in ways that go far beyond webcams.

It can be tremendously traumatic for children dealing with long-term illnesses to deal with the sickness itself, plus the social disconnection from their peers. These telepresence robots could fill the void.

5. Robots that learned the concept of ownership

Researchers at Yale University taught robots to recognize who owns what items and published a paper with their findings. In addition to learning ownership, robots can also respond according to what they are allowed to do with the owner’s stuff. The scientists involved say that teaching this kind of ownership-related etiquette is extremely important.

In the future, these robots might help keep property or possessions secure. Such capabilities probably won’t happen soon at a commercial level, though. This project seems to mark the first time scientists have looked at robotic ownership in this sense.

A 2018 paper proposed expanding who owns robotic technologies and benefiting from them, though. That author put forth the idea of allowing employees to have ownership stakes in the machines at their companies, including those that may eventually replace jobs held by humans. This angle is different from that of the Yale experiment, but perhaps the two discoveries could combine.

For example, if a robot learns which human owns it, it might interact with that person in personalized ways that individuals without ownership privileges don’t experience.

6. Robots that people operate remotely to earn income

Mira Robotics, a Japanese company, envisions a future where people have robots to help them do the things they can’t accomplish on their own. It offered a scenario where an older adult might use a robot to do laundry. The company says it could also assist with other responsibilities, such as cleaning the pet pads companion animals use.

Although these robots help consumers, the company says they could be a way for people to earn income. A company representative explained that people could operate these robots remotely. That advantage could help people who are disabled and want to make money through service-oriented tasks, but cannot travel to their clients’ homes.

In another recent case in Japan, robots made by OriHime helped paralyzed people make a living from their homes by remotely controlling robots that worked in a café.

That project was only a two-week trial, but there are plans to open a permanent establishment using the same concept by 2020.

The people who controlled the robots from afar earned the same wage as other waitstaff members, which opens interesting possibilities for housebound people who want to meaningfully contribute to society while supporting themselves.

Fascinating future possibilities

Even though these experimental projects may not ultimately see commercial success on a widespread scale, it’s easy to see how they have value for the marketplace.

Some of them may not give the results their developers hope to achieve, but experiments still help researchers push the boundaries for new robotics projects on the horizon.