In the taxonomy of robots, there are two main branches: the bots that we control and the bots that control themselves. Screenwriters would have us believe that the latter—so-called autonomous systems—are tomorrow's great insurgency, a fleet of scuttling Roombas evolving into chrome death bringers. In fact, self-guided robots have been here for decades, toiling away on the assembly line, though bolted into position where they can't backhand or spot-weld a coworker. But now, without any inkling of sci-fi malice, the robotics industry is producing a generation of unleashed automatons. Freedom is programmed in. The robots are cleared to mingle with us.
If you've thought about robots living and working among us lately, your vision is likely of America's burgeoning chauffeur class: Google's driverless cars. Legislatures in California, Florida, and Nevada have all legalized self-driving vehicles on their roads, though that's still a vision for the future. Many other robots are already affecting lives and bottom lines today—mostly out of sight, by design. Machine autonomy is cementing our role as taskmasters, with humans directing everything from R2-D2-size bots that shuttle medications around hospitals to 700-ton cargo trucks that are among the largest in the world and haul ore at mining sites. The developments could usher in a golden age of man-machine relations, with no onset of freedom-fighting Terminators. Though one day, the Roombas might unionize.
These are the companies leading the autobot movement.
For creating roaming factory-worker giants
Pittsburgh-based Seegrid has long sold industrial trucks, forklifts, and cargo movers that can autonomously navigate around people as they carry 8,000 pounds of material to designated locations. In 2012, it made a significant upgrade—making its bots waterproof and allowing them to move backward, pick up loads, and move faster, all while using half the energy. Seegrid claims these bots can cut the labor costs of material handling—which are $120 billion annually, industrywide—by 90% or more. Large retailers such as the outdoor-gear chain Cabela's have bought them for their warehouses. But the cuts don't mean steep loss of jobs; ramped-up production lines meant more demand for workers who can optimize the flow of materials. A 2011 study by the London-based market research firm Metra Martech showed that, over the next half-decade, the influx of robots will add 1 million "high quality" jobs worldwide.
The privately held company, which was spun out of the prestigious Carnegie-Mellon Mobile Robot Lab a decade ago, does not discuss its revenues. But its technology—which essentially gives machines five pairs of eyeballs that constantly scan a space and navigate around landmarks it recognizes—has won it an important partnership with Toyota, which will use the tech in its own devices. Now it's eyeing international expansion. "Our approach is all about giving robots sensory capabilities, so they can work in our environment," says COO Mitchell Weiss. "With more cameras and bigger processors, that approach will continue to scale."
For replacing a surgeon's hands with steadier metal
Surgery puts us in intimate contact with robots, and the past year has seen a remarkable advance in the exactitude of their work: Mazor Robotics' Renaissance system maneuvers an orthopedic surgeon's tools into place during spinal procedures and keeps the drill on target, with movements that are accurate to within 1.5 millimeters. Rather than doctors having to run a sequence of X-rays to confirm the position of their old tools, the robot maps its movements to a 3-D model of the patient's spine.
There were 18 Renaissance systems active in U.S. hospitals as of late last year, triple the number in place in 2011. They combined for more than 1,300 procedures—and the rate of revision cases, where follow-up surgery is needed to repeat or correct the previous operation, dropped from an average of 10% to zero. The growth helped the Israeli-based company boost revenue more than 150% in the first three quarters of 2012, to almost $10 million, and approach profitability. This past summer, the FDA cleared Mazor to use its robot for cranial surgery. "We have the precision. We have the results," says CEO Ori Hadomi.
For driving itself into space
Robots have become so smart that they're now cleared for liftoff. The California-based SpaceX, Elon Musk's private space company, sent its fully autonomous Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station this past October. It was carrying 1,002 pounds of cargo into orbit and was the first privately developed space vehicle to dock there. By next year, SpaceX plans to use the craft's emergency launch escape system to facilitate powered landings—a considerably trickier operation than Dragon's current method of parachuting into the ocean.
By 2015, SpaceX expects another white-knuckle milestone: Dragon will be able to transport passengers by itself, a boon to NASA in the post-space shuttle era. SpaceX stands to make $440 million for its initial manned launches and $1.6 billion for a total of a dozen cargo deliveries.
For building the stealthiest robot you'll never see
Recon's bot must navigate around humans, but secretly. It's one of the military's spybots of choice, a 1-pound, $14,000 gadget made for war zones and hostage standoffs. To activate it, soldiers simply pull out a pin and chuck it up to 120 feet—like a grenade, except it lands and can be steered remotely. Recon has been making the bots since 2007, and there are now 4,850 deployed around the world, but 2012 was an important year: Recon rolled out ThrowBot versions sensitive enough to pick up audio from 30 feet away, instead of just video. The military promptly bought 1,000.
"We're always looking for ways to integrate more technology but keep the weight where it is," says Jack Klobucar, Recon's marketing head. A new model pushes video to smartphones. A retractable arm allows for stealthier drops over walls. And the bots can now be dropped from drones and then help the unmanned planes find places to land safely, solving a common problem. The advances helped Recon's 2012 revenue reach $22 million, nearly four times its total two years ago. Next up: Recon expects to court sports media, agriculture, and real estate companies—all of which use cameras (though not quite to spy).
Photos by Clang