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7 fields where robots are taking charge

By the editors of the Kiplinger Washington Letter, Kiplinger Personal Finance

Premium Health News Service

3:30 PM EDT, September 27, 2013

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Over the next decade, the number and variety of robots in the workplace will soar, taking over many jobs that are too dirty, too dull or too dangerous for people to do. Already, about 1.4 million industrial robots are deployed around the world, as well as several million robotic devices designed for in-home consumer use. And potential growth is vast: Only about 10 percent of possible industrial users, for example, have actually incorporated robots into their processes.

In time, the use of robotics will likely spawn millions of new American jobs in designing, building, monitoring and maintaining electronic workers, in fields yet imagined. But short term, robots will displace thousands of workers, especially in fields that draw heavily on low-wage labor and/or put a premium on rote consistency, accuracy and endurance.

Here are seven key areas where you'll see more robots:

1. In hospitals, medical centers and nursing homes

As one of the country's fastest growing industries, health care is attracting a lot of attention from robotics designers and makers. Doctor-controlled surgical robots are already on the job. Within the decade, microscopic bots -- both biological and mechanical -- will be used to clear clogged arteries, measure blood viscosity and deliver drugs to precise locations in the body.

Mechanical aides will increasingly assist nurses and others who provide routine care, easing the need for nurse's aides, home health care aides and other positions that have been hard to fill. Among the tasks that robots will perform:

a) Lifting and repositioning patients

b) Delivering medications to patients' rooms.

c) Acting as mobile supply closets, following nurses from room to room.

d) Delivering lab samples and reports.

e) Conducting routine monitoring of patients -- taking temperatures, blood pressure, glucose and so on.

2. Food preparation

As that lettuce makes it way to market, it might soon encounter another robot. Organic food provider Earthbound Farm Organic is using bots from Adept Technology to pack plastic clamshell containers full of greens. Earthbound has made a point of finding other positions for the displaced workers.

Food processing is rife with jobs that are open to robotic replacement. Scientists at the Georgia Tech Research Institute are developing a robotic system that can debone a chicken. With a 3-D vision system, the robot can adapt to different sizes of birds. It uses a feedback system to sense the junction of ligament and bone, thereby reducing the hazard of bone chips.

3. In and around the home

You've probably already seen Roomba, the best known of iRobot's line of autonomous house-cleaning devices. The roving vacuums have been cleaning floors and terrorizing pets for over 10 years, and iRobot has developed devices that mop floors and clean pools and gutters.

Next up: a robot that does windows. Windoro, developed in South Korea, uses a powerful magnet to keep it stuck to vertical glass. Bots will eventually even fold the family laundry. But that's just a start. They'll have a role as personal assistants, especially for the elderly living at home. Industrial giants in Japan (where the population is rapidly graying) are leading this charge.

Toyota has a robot in the works that, among other tasks, can pick up and tote items around the house, remind Grandma to take her pills and let someone watch via Skype while she does it. Honda's ASIMO understands voice commands, climbs stairs and handles complex tasks such as picking up and opening a glass bottle and pouring the contents into a cup. Eventually, bots will lift paralytics and help them dress and eat.

4. On the farm

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.

5. On factory floors

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.