This Week In Bots: Will Robots Cause Even More Human Unemployment?

Welding droids at a Kansas-based aerospace company are doing dangerous jobs that once went to flesh-and-blood employees. What will robots do next?

robot workers


Bot Vid: NASA’s Moon Probe

NASA, the Automaton blog tells us, is busy testing a new device called the Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatiles Extraction, destined to one day be used by robots on the Moon. The device, RESOLVE for short, is designed to drill and sample the lunar surface intelligently looking for water sources. Water will be an invaluable resource on the Moon because it can help sustain a human colony there and may even be useful to act as a rocket propellant. A joint effort with Canada’s space agency, the machine is under test on Hawaii now.

Bot Vid: Rocketing Robotic Insects


If the idea of swarms of tiny sensor-laden robots rampaging over battlefields or scuttling quietly into zones needing surveillance makes you nervous, then this news may at least make you grin with childish glee. Researchers at Harvard’s microrobotics lab have realized that when it comes to propelling tiny flygin drone robots, you really can’t beat a miniature solid rocket motor for simplicity and high energy density. They’ve been constructing a series of engines and testing them on various tiny airframes–which, as you can see at the end of the video, is simultaneously successful and a lot of fun. Ultimately tiny drones like this may have important military and search and rescue missions because they can very quickly access an area to report back on the situation.

Bot Vid: Swarming Disaster Quadrocopters

In a test that validates the power of swarming flying robots to help in a disaster situation, Japan’s Chiba university has tested a fleet of quadrocopters in a simulated hunt for “survivors” of a fake disaster–with the drones automatically hunting a scenario for people using clever image processing systems. According to the team the results were good, and police are very interested in the tech for monitoring power lines, volcanic events and so on. As the first practical demonstration of these aerobatically stunning machines, the experiment is an important milestone.


Bot News

Ford’s Car-Feeling Bot. One of Ford’s quality-control robots is in the news this week. RUTH (Robotized Unit for Tactility and Haptics) is a highly dextrous robot with very sensitive fingers that can poke and prod at car interiors, throw switches and turn dials so that it can test out the comfortableness and build quality of cars rolling off Ford’s production line. RUTH was installed in Ford’s North American plants to help it design the 2013 Fusion vehicle.

Kissing Bot. Singaporean robotics studio Lovotics has a new robot in the news. Kissenger is an advanced and intimate form of telepresence robot specially designed to transmit the senstions of a kiss. Two units are able to record and remotely reproduce the unique pressure sensations from a kiss … although the design looks pretty chaste and seems to lack an option to go French. Research like this while seeming silly is crucial for innovating next-gen avatar robot tech.


Medical Robotics Surges. According to a fresh report from Global Industry Analysts Inc., the worldwide market for medical robotics is skyrocketing quickly and is now forecast as reaching $1.53 billion in 2018. The surge is being driven by greater acceptance of robotic techniques in the medical community, an aging population, promising medical results and breakthroughs like the recent robotic surgery firsts in total hip replacement and breast cancer

Mine Hunter Bot. The Navy has tried many tactics to survey its vehicles beneath the waterline, looking for problems or threats like mines … divers, dolphins, trained sea lions, and ROVs have been used with varying success and cost, but now there’s promise from research into autonomous robot minisubs. The subs use sonar and very clever processing to navigate their way around the vast belly of a warship, avoiding struts and spurs and complex structures like the prop and rudder assembly, and they’re able to identify a mine as small as 10 cm across.

Bot Futures: They’re Coming For Our Jobs

We write a lot about the future of robots in the workplace in This Week In Bots, and for good reason: Robotic employees can work 24/7 without so much as a water break, they don’t strike, and they can be very reliable. In certain situations, having a robot operate in a dangerous or overly repetitive environment on a factory floor or other industrial situation is evidently much better than having a fragile person do the task–particularly in places like Japan’s post-disaster nuclear reactor sites.

A report this week at provides an illuminating example of bots at work. It profiles welding robots in aircraft production at Spirit AeroSystems, formerly part of Boeing, where robots are becoming invaluable in the construction of aircraft like the brand new 787 Dreamliner. For example heat treatment, a critical part of the construction, involves spraying flames over the exposed aircraft parts to increase their durabiiity. It was a dangerous physical task that required heavy protective clothing and was so intense an operator could only stay in the spray booth for 20 to 30 minute intervals. Now a robot operative does it all by remote at the flick of a switch, improving employee safety as well as the consistency and precision of the heat treatment process. Other robots at Spirit drill precision holes in the 787’s composite body or titanium framework, and more are planned in Spirit’s future workforce.


This sort of futuristic production is an almost inevitably growing phenomenon as more and more production of more and more high-tech products goes on around the world. As one of the most prominent proponents of robotics in production, China’s Foxconn is likely to be a role model–its CEO has promised to augment his million-person workforce with a million robots in the coming years. They won’t replace humans at first, but ultimately they’ll affect Foxconn’s worker numbers. The suspicion is that China is developing its own robots for this task, so perhaps displaced workers can get assembly line jobs in the robot-maker factories.

That may sound like a joke — but when thinking about the bleak U.S. employment landscape, it’s not at all funny. While many tech firms are newly interested in exploring the idea of products that are “made in America“–Google’s Nexus Q device re-ignited the conversation recently–the truth is that the high-tech production of the future will very likely be robot-centric.

With robots working in factories, driving cars, and operating in the battlefield, we’re going to have to ask tough questions about how robots will or will not “steal” jobs from humans. It’s going to be a heated debate, and it’s going to be focused, in part, on the overall benefit robot workers have, or don’t, on the entire economy. Considering moves like Amazon’s adoption of Kiva warehouse robots, it may be a debate that spreads as far as the presidential race in four years time.

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[Image: Flickr user jurvetson ]

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)