Growing quality vegetable and fruit crops is repetitive, back-breaking work -- and much of it is still done by hand. That's why engineers at Blue River Technology are developing a robot that can take over the job of thinning out lettuce seedlings. Their mobile unit, dubbed Lettuce Bot, will roll through rows of plants, comparing images of what it sees with a database of well-spaced, healthy plants. Ones that are too weak or planted too close to others will be killed with an overdose of fertilizer.
For conventional row farming, where machines such as harvesters and combines have long been in use, look for autonomous advancements as well. German tractor maker Fendt has developed a radio-and-GPS system that allows a driverless tractor to follow the lead of a manned one as they make their way around the fields, doubling the output.
Long established in both U.S. and foreign automobile factories, robots are taking on complex tasks in manufacturing settings. Already, sophisticated car-making robots can recognize which variation of a model is headed down the line, then select and assemble the right components for it. At Boeing, giant robots move rapidly and precisely over the metal skin of wide-body commercial airliners, riveting it in place.
The growing sophistication of sensors and artificial intelligence will make interaction between mechanical and live workers safe and feasible. Robots such as Baxter, from Rethink Robotics, can work side by side with humans, rather than in separate caged-off areas.
Employees will continue to perform tasks that require human judgment, while mechanical helpers take on functions that require endurance or involve hazards such as heat, cold and exposure to chemicals. Robots will lift and move heavy objects.
6. In classrooms
Humanoid robots will go to the head of the class, taking telelearning to new frontiers. For example, English instruction is in high demand in Asian countries such as South Korea. Enter Engkey, a robot developed by South Korea's Center for Intelligent Robotics. Engkey teaches elementary school students pronunciation (and sings and dances).
Human teachers in the classroom help facilitate Engkey's interactions. In the Philippines, Engkey's voice and motions are driven by a native speaker of English. The robot costs substantially less than paying native English teachers to live and work in South Korea.
Down the road, "personable" robots such as Engkey will lead tours, explore remote sites, inspect equipment and check classwork. And yes, your teachers really will have eyes in the back of their heads.
7. In the military
Building on the experience of drone aircraft, the military is rapidly expanding its use of robots. Number one reason? Safety. The jobs they'll take, such as walking point on an infantry patrol, won't be missed by humans.
Closer to deployment are robots such as this one under development by Boston Dynamics and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The four-legged "mule" easily negotiates rocks and divots in the road and field. It is intended to follow a military unit of soldiers autonomously, catching up with the unit on field forays with supplies and allowing them to recharge batteries from its onboard power source.
In the field, it's surprisingly quiet -- an important characteristic on a secret mission. Future versions of the pack mule will be able to interpret verbal and visual commands.
Drone aircraft will continue their expansion -- and miniaturization. Bumblebee-size fliers will scout out urban buildings and other potential danger spots. Drones will move across land and in the water -- where they can be stealthily cached on the seafloor until called into action.