According to estimates from a study released in 2006 by the International Federation of Robotics, there are almost one million industrial robots in service worldwide, and of these almost half exist in Asia. Why is there such a demand?

What Robots Are Doing

Imagine a worker who is always on the job, who never complains, and who can work tirelessly 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Well, industrial robots are doing just that as they churn out a host of automotive, electrical, and household items. Robots live up to their name, which comes from the Czech word robota, meaning “forced labor.” It is estimated that in the car-manufacturing industry in 2005, there was 1 robot for every 10 workers!

Robots, though, are no longer confined to the factory. They now come equipped with such things as voice-recognition software, gyroscopes, wireless data communication, Global Positioning Systems, and a range of sensors including those for heat, force, ultrasound, chemicals, and radiation. More powerful and versatile than ever, robots are performing tasks that were viewed as impossible just a few years ago. Consider some examples.

Service. In a hospital in Great Britain, a pharmacy robot with mechanical arms retrieves and dispenses medication within seconds. The U.S. Postal Service has a host of robots that are used to sort, lift, and stack trays of parcels. Snake-arm robots can reach into confined spaces—such as inside airplane wings—to perform inspections or repairs.

Companion. In a nursing home in Japan, elderly patients take turns stroking a cute, furry robotic baby seal. The robot seal is sensitive to touch, light, sound, and temperature, as well as even to the way it is held. It can mimic animal behavior and respond by cooing, blinking its eyes, and wiggling its fins. The robot seal is said to fill a basic human need for companionship and is used as a form of therapy.

Medical. A robot with three arms stands over a patient. Several feet away, a surgeon buries his head in the viewfinder of a giant console to peer at a 3-D image of his patient’s heart. The surgeon controls the robot’s arms as it snips and sews to repair a faulty heart valve. This system allows for minimally invasive surgery because of the robot’s extreme precision of movement, resulting in reduced trauma to the body, reduced blood loss, and quicker recovery.

Household. Just press a button, and a disk-shaped robot goes to work vacuuming your floors. The robot covers open areas in a widening spiral motion and navigates along walls, eventually “learning” the room layout. It detects stairs and avoids them. The robot automatically stops when finished and heads to its recharging station. Over two million of these vacuum robots are now in use.

Space. A six-wheel mobile robot named Spirit explores the surface of Mars. With scientific instruments and tools attached to its robotic arm, the rover robot examines the composition of soil and rocks. Using its onboard cameras, Spirit has taken more than 88,500 images of Mars, including those of the planet’s terrain, craters, clouds, dust storms, and sunsets. It is one of the robotic vehicles currently in operation on Mars.

Search and Rescue. Beneath the smoking debris of a superheated pile of twisted steel beams and shattered concrete of the collapsed World Trade Towers, 17 basketball-size search-and-rescue robots went to work, looking for survivors. Since then, more-advanced models have been developed, such as the one shown below.

Underwater. Autonomous underwater vehicles are being used by scientists to explore earth’s final frontier—the ocean. These robotic vehicles are unmanned and self-powered. Other applications underwater include search-and-recovery operations, inspection of telecommunication cables, tracking whales, and minesweeping the ocean.

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