Ready for the robot revolution?

Progress in robotics, from drones to medical applications, is starting to come at a fast clip. Do you want your robot to cook your food, or just deliver it?

robot robbie
Garrett Coakley

The days of drones filling the sky and robots roaming in our streets are not far removed from reality anymore, and scenes from movies like Star Wars, Minority Report and I, Robot will be common soon. Just consider some of the ways that robots have started to permeate our lives.

Start with Amazon, which is taking to drones in a big way. The online shopping giant started a new phase in high-tech customer service by showing off small drones that it claims will be able to deliver products to consumers in 30 minutes or less. The main goal of this futuristic service, called Prime Air, is to speed up Amazon's delivery times, creating a competitive advantage over other digital marketplaces and traditional stores.

Amazon Web Services could be a model for this army of drones, with Amazon leasing its drones to other companies to deliver their products — CVS for medications, Safeway for groceries, UPS for packages, Pizza Hut for hot food delivery on time, and more.

"One day, seeing Amazon Prime Air will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today, resulting in enormous benefits for consumers across the nation," the company says.

The company has tested the full spectrum of its drones' capabilities, including agility, flight duration and redundancy. It also claims to have developed sense-and-avoid sensors and algorithms that will allow the Prime Air drones to see obstacles and automatically avoid collisions. The battery-powered drones are capable of flying at 50 mph, and can carry a five-pound payload — sufficient to deliver 86% of the products in Amazon's inventory.

The company is embracing new technology to ensure that operations are safe. Amazon plans to add a feature so that drones will safely stop operating and return automatically to a specific location on Amazon's property if the communications link is lost. Amazon sees drones as the future of commercial delivery. The technology is one way Amazon can reduce shipping expenses, which cost the company nearly $4 billion per year.

Drones will do more than make deliveries

Drones are seen as superior to helicopters due to the smaller devices' cheaper equipment and personnel costs, reduced noise, smaller environmental impact and ability to access infrastructure that is difficult to reach. And recent advancements in drone technology and the development of sophisticated sensors have lowered the cost of collecting vast amounts of information. As a result, drones are likely to be invaluable in capturing big data in many fields, including agriculture, construction, environment, surveying, utilities and security, opening countless business opportunities. They will also find application in humanitarian efforts. For example, delivering medications to areas struck by natural disasters, or infected by diseases (the recent breakout of Ebola in Liberia is an opportunity to use drones without exposing doctors to danger or spreading the virus to other areas). Nearly 1 billion people on the planet live without access to all-season roads, meaning that a significant portion of the population is unable to receive aid and emergency supplies when needed. Drones can change all that.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) forecasts that the economic impact of drones will total more than $13.6 billion over the next three years and will grow substantially for the foreseeable future, reaching more than $82.1 billion by 2025. The AUVSI report estimates that as much as 85% of drone usage will be in agriculture, with as many as 135,000 unit sales per year by 2025. Worldwide demand is expected to rise as other countries follow regulations set by the FAA. Drone hardware sales in agriculture are expected to reach nearly $7 billion annually.

The dawn of the robot revolution

One company showing a lot of interest in robotics is Google. It recently bought DeepMind, an artificial intelligence company that helps computers learn to operate like humans. Even though Google search is already incredibly solid, Google likely wants to use AI to improve its efficiency and the quality of data gathered. With Google's obsession with knowledge and organizing information, we could see Google beefing up its search offerings with AI from its acquisition of Boston Dynamics, which is a leading provider of human simulation software. Its robots need to react independently to their environment — and perfecting that type of machine learning is widely regarded as the key to the next phase of tech.

Other companies acquired by Google include Industrial Perception, a U.S. startup that has developed digital eyes and robot arms for use in loading trucks; Holomni, which produces caster wheels that can rapidly swivel in any direction; and Japan's Schaft, whose robots generate as much power as a human and have mastered stable biped walking to cope with uneven ground. Plans reportedly are to develop machines that can be used for a range of activities, from manufacturing small electronics like smartphones — still mostly assembled by hand — to packing goods in warehouses and ultimately making home deliveries.

Robots are already helping in many professions and fields, from parking lot attendees to tollbooth collectors to drugstore cashiers. A restaurant in Japan is almost fully staffed by robots that cook the food and wait on the tables. A surgical technology called Firefly elevates doctors' ability to remove kidney tumors more safely and more efficiently at Georgetown University Hospital. An unmanned ground vehicle called MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System) has been used to drag injured soldiers out of combat zones and monitor security in remote areas. A humanoid robot called Robonaut 2 aboard the International Space Station can perform simple tasks such as flipping switches and grabbing objects, relieving some of the challenging spacewalks required of astronauts.

One thing that technology has always done is to extend our human senses (physical and mental), and many computer scientists think that robotics' next big breakthrough will be vision (so that robots can see, not just learn). According to Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, who leads the hush-hush R&D division known as Google X, cutting-edge machine learning is already capable of taking inputs such as vision — which is currently being used for Google's self-driving cars.

So the future machine will be a smart robot with a drone as part of its structure, or in today terms "a flying robot" providing a wide spectrum of services. Let's just hope we are not building the first "Terminator."

Ahmed Banafa is a Kaplan University faculty member in the School of Information Technology. He has extensive experience in IT operations and management, as well as a research background in a variety of techniques and analysis. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the view of Kaplan University.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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