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A child-like iCub robot plays a game where it learns how to match shapes to corresponding places on a light-up board

Building robots for the future

Robots have been around now for many years, especially in factories. But we have yet to see robots integrate into wider society, such as homes, hospitals and schools. This raises some key questions: Are the robots coming? When will they get here? What will they be like? In this step, we examine what the near future holds for robotics.

Robots already shape society

Almost every product we see and use in modern day society is built by automated systems incorporating robots. From our smartphones to our cars, products of automated manufacturing systems and robots are all around us. But many of the current generation of robots reside in factories, hidden away from society.

An automated production line in a car factory incorporating robot manipulators. Robots of the present - an automated production line incorporating robot manipulators.
Photo: Steve Jurvetson (CC BY 2.0)

The primary type of robot used in factories is the manipulator, or robot arm, which can pick and place objects, and use tools for tasks like welding. Manipulators are the most successful robot the world has yet seen, in terms of usefulness to society and widespread adoption across global industry.

A vision for the future

Our vision, and the vision of robotics engineers worldwide, is that future robots will transform society, becoming an integral part of future smart cities, smart homes and smart industries.

Robots will also impact a number of industry sectors, providing care for an ageing population, safer transport, efficient healthcare, increased productivity in manufacturing, offshore exploration of the seas and oceans, space exploration and secure energy.

Where are robots set to have a future impact?

Aerospace: Collision detect and avoid systems for use on unmanned air systems (UAS) of all sizes is a top priority, and these will translate across to manned systems, making flight safer for all.

Marine robots: Autonomous marine robots have great potential for inspection and survey of subsea infrastructure, deep sea exploration and aircraft black box recovery.

Bionic devices: The ageing population motivates the development of bionic technologies, such as exoskeletons and brain-computer interfaces, which can help ensure longer independent lives.

Nuclear decommissioning robots: Nuclear power is set to increase and the high levels of radiation associated with the technology will require the use of advanced robotic tools for decommissioning.

Intelligent vehicles: Increased levels of autonomy in cars are set to make road travel safer and more efficient, reducing congestion and making journey times shorter.

Farms of the future: Robots on farms will lead to more efficient energy use, reduced use of fertiliser and pesticide, more effective use of land, reduced environmental impact and enhanced cropping systems.

Space exploration: Robots, not humans, are key to future exploration of deep space whilst in near space robots will be needed to construct platforms to assist astronauts with tasks.

Surgical robots: Lightweight robotic tools will be able to amplify the surgeon’s skill, remove tremors and operate with micro-scale forces on delicate tissue, well beyond the capabilities of human precision.

Smart cities: Robots will become the ‘actors’ in future smart cities, making them integrated and smooth running; maintaining services and utilities and providing transport and logistics.

Robotic systems are a ubiquitous and underpinning technology that can fuel the global industrial strategy for the 21st century, positively transforming our lives.

Discussion

What new robot would you like to see in the future and why? How would this new robot impact on your life, or wider society?

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Building a Future with Robots

The University of Sheffield

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