Businesses adopting robots for new tasks

But will the machines and their ilk take away jobs -- even white-collar ones?

When Christian Johnson began his summer 2012 internship at the information management branch of NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., he little suspected that he'd soon be virtually tooling around the center via a vaguely humanoid robot on wheels.

Once classes began in the fall, the 18-year-old had to finish up his senior year of high school in Buffalo, N.Y., and needed to telecommute to continue his work as data analytics specialist at the research center. One of his co-workers had heard about a company called VGo Communications that makes a wheeled personal avatar, or what it calls a "productivity improvement solution," that lets people see and hear -- and be seen and be heard -- from far away.

The co-worker wrote a proposal urging Langley's CIO to buy a VGo unit, and the CIO's office approved the purchase of one of the robotic avatars so that Johnson could use it to move virtually through the building and attend meetings -- just one of the new ways robots are making their mark in business today.

   VGo robot
Christian Johnson, a high school student living Buffalo, N.Y., used a VGo robotic avatar like this one so he could work remotely and continue his internship as a data analytics specialist at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia.

Industrial robots have been around since the early 1960s and have been used mainly in automotive plants. As they have gained more sophisticated sensors in the past decade or so, they have increasingly been used in other fields, including healthcare, the military and public safety. Robots have even been used for underwater applications.

According to the "World Robotics" report (download PDF) from the International Federation of Robotics, 2011 was the most successful year for industrial robots since 1961, with sales increasing by 38% to 166,028 units. The main countries for growth were China, the United States and Germany, although Japan remained on top.

U.S. shipments of robots hit a high of 20,555 units in 2011, up 43% from 2010, according to the IFR, which predicts that more than 1.5 million industrial robots will be in operation worldwide in 2015.

These days, robots are taking on more advanced duties in manufacturing and logistics, are being adopted by smaller companies and are making their way into office environments, as Johnson and his co-workers discovered firsthand.

The VGo unit that Langley purchased is equipped with a camera, microphones and video display on a 4-foot-tall motorized platform. Once Johnson installed specialized software on his computer at home in Buffalo, he was able to log on to the VGo device to have a 20-minute conversation with a co-worker or even "attend" meetings lasting several hours. Traditional teleconferencing or even telepresence systems wouldn't have met his needs, he says, because he had to be able to move around the building to get his job done.

Telecommuting via bot

With a robotic avatar, "you have more control over where you're going and, more importantly, you can interact with people in a room in a much more hands-on manner and get a feel for who's in the room," Johnson says. "That can get confusing when you're on a large teleconference."

"It took some getting used to," he acknowledges, explaining that there are two ways to control the VGo unit: using a combination of arrow keys on the keyboard, or via VGo's on-screen interface. Johnson opted for the latter approach. The interface features a half-circle that overlays an image of the view that's capture by the unit's webcam; if you drag your mouse in the direction you want to go, the bot will start moving that way. Johnson says it's almost like a drag-and-drop system: the farther you drag the mouse toward the top of the half circle, the faster the unit goes.

Sometimes Johnson's avatar would bump into things, especially since, to keep costs down, VGo opted not to put arms on its units. He also found it a challenge to press the handicapped access pad outside a door to open it. "It was much easier to wait for a co-worker and drive with him," he says. While Johnson isn't sure what Langley paid for the unit, he says that VGo devices have retail price tags of about $6,000.

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