September 23, 2015      

On the surface, California has it all — abundant sunshine, a large pool of tech talent, and proximity to Asia-Pacific markets. As the nightly news (and noir and apocalyptic media) remind us, however, trouble is lurking in paradise.

Natural and manmade disasters, an uneven distribution of skills in the labor force, and commuting hassles are just some of the challenges faced by California — and by extension, the U.S. and the world. Here are five ways in which robotics can help — and provide business opportunities.

Overcoming disasters with drones

The current historic drought and related wildfires pose an imminent threat to life and property. Drones are relatively inexpensive, easy to control, and can travel over rough terrain more easily than humans or other vehicles. Aerial drones are already being used to monitor and fight wildfires, although a few hobbyists need to remember to stay out of the way of firefighting aircraft.

But there is progress. The Federal Aviation Administration granted an exemption to Down East Emergency Medical Institute. The Maine-based nonprofit is the first civilian organization to get permission to use drones for search-and-rescue operations.

Unmanned ground vehicles have also made progress in detecting leaking gas lines and for rescue situations. Both are needed in earthquake-prone regions such as Japan or California.

To be sure, emergency personnel need to be trained in how to properly use drones to gather and analyze information and to render aid, and the public shouldn’t be lured into thinking that the technology can solve any problem.

After a slow start, federal and state law enforcement authorities are expected to make greater use of drones for surveillance and drug interdiction.

Not only can robots help with the problems from not having enough water, but they can also help with melting ice and rising oceans. The Volvo Ocean Race has teamed up with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to monitor the ocean around Antarctica. Boats racing in Volvo’s regatta will drop robotic buoys.

Unmanned marine vessels such as those from Pitchfire nominee Autonomous Marine Systems can monitor wildlife populations and assist in offshore energy exploration and production.

Automated farming amid drought

Ranching and farming have been controversial during the current drought in California, which grows much of the U.S.’s food supply, including most of its fruit and vegetables. Agriculture in the state was a $46.4 billion business in 2013, but the lack of rain could cost farmers $3 billion this year.

Automated agriculture and the Internet of Things are giving farmers new tools for managing crops and livestock. Distributed sensors can provide data that robots can then act upon, multiplying each farmer’s productivity.

Precision farming, in which robots apply water, fertilizers, and pesticides in small amounts where they are needed, can reduce waste and increase yields. In addition, both government and industry will need to reconsider which crops nationwide need subsidies and which are essential.

Urban and indoor farming could bring produce closer to consumers, saving fuel and also minimizing dependence on the weather. Japan has been pioneering the development of robotic greenhouses.

The dairy industry has already adopted robotics, and drones could help ranchers much as dogs, horses, and all-terrain vehicles have.

Redistributing labor with robotics

Farm labor is another area ripe for robotics. While some media outlets continue to focus on fears of job losses from industrial automation, harvesting is often low-wage, backbreaking work. Illegal immigration is again a flashpoint in the latest U.S. presidential campaign, making migrant workers less attractive to some California farms and orchards.

Automated pickers such as Harvest CROO Robotics‘ strawberry picker could free up people for more rewarding work, but retraining will be necessary. Similarly, the industrial automation can change the way in which goods are produced for and delivered to American consumers.

The demand for fast, personalized goods through e-commerce has encouraged automation in the logistics industry. In addition, many analysts predict that more localized production and the desire for shorter supply chains could actually lead to more jobs through re-industrialization in the U.S. For instance, Clearpath’s OTTO warehouse robot can make warehouses more efficient at moving goods.

Robots can conduct tasks that are too tedious or dangerous for humans, such as warehouse picking and mining, but AI improvements also threaten the jobs of service and knowledge workers. Robots such as Savioke’s robotic butler could affect the service industry, which often pays poorly but is also the gateway into employment for young or unskilled workers.

The question isn’t whether automation will change the nature of work but how different industries will adopt it and whether employers will help find new roles for their workers. Just because a robot can care for the young, ill, or elderly, is that the best application of fully autonomous systems?

Freeing up freeways with self-driving cars

Speaking of efficiency, robotics could help relieve chronic traffic congestion. Self-driving vehicles are still in the testing phase, including some already on California’s roads.

Self-driving cars promise to reduce traffic by traveling closer together at more even speeds on highways. Even without full automation, driver-assist technologies could reduce the number of accidents and save lives.

Intelligent vehicles would also communicate with one another and the Internet, finding alternate routes and reducing fuel waste and air pollution.

Telepresence could also relieve commuting angst by allowing a wider range of people to work remotely or to serve at multiple sites simultaneously.

Healthcare robot installs by state

Intuitive Surgical robot installs by state.

Healthcare robotics to grow

Although California has a younger population than much of the nation, the demand for care will still only grow. The markets for robotic surgery, telemedicine, mobile robots in hospitals, and 3D-printed prosthetics and even organs are all underserved at present, so the race is on to see which providers can serve them the best — and most affordably.

For example, Game Changer Virtual Incision’s surgical robot allows for minimal incisions for surgery, allowing for quicker recovery.

Markets and Markets predicts that healthcare robotics will grow to a $3.7 billion market in the next three years. As with the issue of replacement or redistribution of labor mentioned above, questions remain about access to robotic care and which roles are best served by automated assistants.

What do you think? Am I off-base, ill-informed, or overly optimistic? Feel free to comment here, on social media including LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+, or, even better, tell me in person at this week’s RoboBusiness 2015 in San Jose!