In 2013, Google acquired no fewer than eight robotics companies. The internet behemoth clearly sees huge potential in an industry which, to outsiders, appears to have been stuck in first gear for decades. The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week has given the world a chance to see how much progress has been made away from Google HQ.
There were 21 robotics companies in attendance at CES, offering a wide range of products able to spin, fly, jump and interact with people in different ways.
The most well-known robotics product is arguably the Roomba. Produced by iRobot, the device put robots on the front line of household cleaning duties. And the Massachusetts-based company has continued its goal of making everyday chores easier with robotics. iRobot unveiled it’s wet-floor cleaner at CES, the Scooba, and wasn’t the only company to go after the cleaning space. Offerings from other companies included the Grillbot – which cleans grills – and Winbot, a robotic window cleaner.
The cleaning bots are not to be sniffed at, as their navigation abilities alone are an incredible feat of engineering. But talking, walking robots that can interact with humans are another step entirely. Humanoid robots like Engineering Arts’ Robo Thespian, which can speak and make gestures, show how far the industry has come –– even if it does still move like C-3PO. Other robots being displayed at CES looked to secure the future of the industry. Vex IQ, for example, is a robot that is designed to help children learn how to program and build robots of their own, and Rapiro is a DIY robotic kit built around either a Rasberry Pi or an Arduino board.
These may not seem like earth-shattering uses of robotic technology, but they are a step towards making this a crucial sector in the near future. There is great potential for robotics to be applied in the healthcare industry, for example. In the field of prosthetics, robotic limbs link up with nerves, and machines like Aethon’s TUG carts steer through hospitals autonomously, delivering supplies to patients.
Robotics’ latent capabilities are as exciting as they are formidable. In months past, Boston Dynamics (backed by DARPA and acquired by Google) has unveiled robotic projects that wouldn’t seem out of place in the Terminator movies. The company’s wireless WildCat robot, though clunky-looking, has reached galloping speeds of 16 mph, meaning on a good stretch of flat road the machine could run a sub-4 minute mile.
ABI Research states the market for consumer robotics stood at $1.6 billion for 2012, and gauges the opportunity will grow to $6.5 billion in 2017, but the industry has a long way to travel yet. Philip Solis of ABI Research says Google will play an important role in the industry’s future as it looks ahead at robotic technology capable of performing multiple tasks.
“We’re a long way between very simple single-task robots and the big vision of what a personal robot can do for you in the home,” Solis says. “A lot of what is at CES right now is a lot of telepresence robots, it’s a lot of vacuum cleaners.”
The rise of robotics has prompted reactions of derision, fear and wonder. They may be just cleaning homes now, but in the future robots will be able to save a life, or take one. With the likes of Google investing heavily in the sector, the age of robotics is coming.