Part II: Will there ever be a killer app in robotics?

innovative technology from telepresence robotics

“Space, The Final Frontier.” - Captain James T. Kirk (Star Trek)

Robots in space are some of the most intriguing images and also some of the most hostile conditions. Enter Planetary Resources, the world first asteroid mining company. Their goal is to use a team of various robotic spacecraft and satellites to identify near earth asteroids that are promising. According to their website, a single 500 meter platinum rich asteroid contains the equivalent of all the platinum metals mined in known history. Near earth asteroids containing water can also be mined, providing outposts for space exploration. This is a really intriguing company who’s technology could facilitate human space exploration. As you discover asteroids with water, it allows you to effectively live off the land, or in space as it were. You can use water not only to drink but to create oxygen and forms of rocket fuel.

Currently there is strong speculation that Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, has a sea of water underneath its icy crust. Though it will still take several years to travel there via a manned craft, movies like Avatar seem more science than fiction. I will admit however, that though there would be little demand for a consumer application involving mining, the results of this venture will have broad impacts on applications from cell phones to fuel cells. Getting back to earth, UAV’s or drones have become more popular recently, not just because of their exposure in the news from military missions. Companies like DIY drones, are allowing a growing cadre of aviation enthusiast to fly their planes and copters with sensors and control beyond what a typical R/C plane can do. While this market is limited in the US due to FAA regulations, several First Responders, Police departments, and Government agencies like the U.S. Department of Wildlife are embracing this technology to reduce risky flights.

The current law requires that users obtain permission from the FAA to fly UAV’s, but, by 2015, they are required to lay out rules to integrate drone use into US airspace. The applications and financial benefits for drone technology are substantial. When you consider the existing miles of oil and gas pipelines that are constantly being inspected, crop fields that can be dusted, and scientific research that can be performed by a UAV as opposed to a piloted aircraft, the market is expected to grow into the billions of dollars. An area with the most obvious need of robots would be Eldercare, but as most home health aides make little more than minimum wage, any robot costing more than $100,000 would have a tough time without financing or leasing options.

Telepresence has filled a part of the void, but with no current models having arms or intelligence other than moving point to point on a known area, there is limited functionality. The ability to scan a person for vital health signs, fold laundry, and cook a simple meal would at least be a start, but again, there is no one robot that does all of these tasks consistently well. One company in stealth mode is tackling the task: Hoaloha Robotics. We can only speculate what they will develop, but they seem to be targeting home health care. A prime opportunity for robotics is automobiles. We spend hours in them each week, sometimes each day travelling to and from work, errands around town, and occasionally a nice drive in the mountains.

Autonomous cars would easily free up at least one hour or more per day for the typical American. Several states have already passed laws regarding autonomous cars, and multiple companies have developed working prototypes. Auto-parking features can already be found on vehicles from Ford, Lexus, and BMW. Google is perhaps the most public about their design, though there are several universities like Carnegie Mellon University, Purdue, and University of Michigan. Thanks to competitions like the DARPA Grand Challenge held in 2005, Volkswagen and GM teamed up with some of the Universities who entered to compete in an historic 150 mile off-road race, that was completed autonomously.

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