The robot industry has gone through some interesting changes over the years. Most of the companies that were involved in the start of the real robot revolution are gone, unable to meet the extraordinary cost reductions that were sure tocome in order to make robots cost effective in most industries. The biggest lesson, in my opinion, was the idea that robots had to be narrowly defined in terms of their application. There was a time where there were only a few companies with the control technology to be able to make the multi-axis coordination work correctly. So every application had to be programmed from scratch and the learning curve was huge.
The fact is that a welding robot is nothing like a Cartesian robot for electronic assembly. And part of the learning curve of the industry was understanding what applications to focus on. This first big reality set in when many companies began to compete for welding applications because the automotive market opportunity was huge. And just figuring out one application was a big enough task that it consumed most of the development resources available in companies like GE and ABB robotics.
Consider the huge learning curve that has taken place in 35 years. Medical robots have matured to the point where orthopedic surgery by a robot is faster and more precise than the best surgeons. Researching the human genome would have been impossible without the high speed sample management systems of bio-assay robots. And autonomous robots have searched the inside of volcanoes, taken samples on the moon and roamed and photographed Mars. Pretty impressive.
Consider the forecast for the future of robotics. Motors and controls have become incredibly sophisticated and costs have dropped dramatically. Computing power has increased to the point where memory and processing costs are almost trivial. The First Robotics Competition is bringing 150,000 school children into the field of robotics through its programs with schools all over the US. And the knowledge base and experience is so pervasive that we have Lego making teaching systems for grade school children to begin to get exposure to robotics.
Among the amazing developments, Barrett Technology has an anthropomorphic arm and “hand” gripper that is designed to low force, low power consumption and safe enough to be in proximity to humans. The Robots and Mechanisms Lab at Virginia Polytechnic has demonstrated many new solutions to common problems of robot locomotion culminating in the Darwin soccer playing robot that operates autonomously. Their goal? Team Darwin wants to be able to compete with human soccer players by the year 2050.
With this kind of innovation, the future of robotics is going to be great.