If you don’t work in a factory, you probably don’t meet robots very often. But that may change soon — thanks to the Industrial Internet, M2M communication, sensors, data science, and advanced analytics.

You may bump into robots working on farms or fixing equipment in power or water lines. Or you may interact with them on your next shopping trip. The home improvement store Lowes is testing robotic shopping assistants at its San Jose, California location. The five-foot-tall robots greet customers, answer their questions, and guide them through the store — all using natural-language processing technology.

Called service robots, these autonomous devices are making forays into cleaning, bomb retrieval, surgery, customer service, and equipment maintenance and are poised to take up service work from the dull to the dirty to the dangerous.

Let the bots do the dirty jobs

Robots are poised to toil at some of the dirtiest jobs in the world. Take sewer reconnaissance, for instance. Remote-controlled devices can crawl down manholes, navigate sewers, and investigate clogged sewer pipes.

They can also change the face of precision farming, as devices like autonomous tractors and farm drones take the dirty work out of farming. Meanwhile, autonomous dairy systems like FutureDairy are helping out with robotic milking and herding.

Robotics technology is also rushing into the dim, murky, and debris-strewn tunnels of mines. Autonomous devices like driverless trucks and precision drilling techniques are being deployed by mining giants like Rio Tinto, which has funded one of the world's largest non-military robot programs.

Robots gear up for dangerous work

On the subject of military robot programs, it's not hard to see the benefits of removing humans from dangerous missions such as bomb disposal and some types of space exploration. Not surprisingly, a whole industry is growing to develop such autonomous devices for these kinds of jobs.

Now companies like Knightscope are pushing them in the mainstream, with patrol bots for college campuses, parking lots, malls, and office parks. Equipped with cameras, sensors, navigation equipment, and electric motors, these robots keep track of their surroundings ready to identify suspicious activity. Microsoft recently tested five such robotic security guards at its Silicon Valley campus.

Leave dull jobs to machines

On the opposite spectrum of dangerous, robots are taking away the most tedious jobs and repetitive tasks.

They automatically check-in bags and place suitcases in lockers for guests at Yotel hotel in New York and perform butler duties at Starwood Hotels and Resorts in California. Amazon fulfillment centers in California, Florida, New Jersey, Texas, and Washington are also experimenting with robots that lift and move shelves of products, delivering them to workers who pluck items to be shipped off to customers.

Autonomous equipment are popular in hospitals, too. Robotic surgical equipments save doctors' time and microbots that scrape plaque from arteries and systems can help nurses prepare intravenous solutions and shots for patients.

A wealth of possibilities

As robots step beyond the shop floor and become more affordable, their ubiquity is inevitable. About 4 million were sold in 2013, according to the Industrial Federation of Robotics. This represented a growth of 28% over the previous year, and the market is likely to get even hotter. MarketsandMarkets research estimates service robots will touch $19.41B by 2020, a compounded annual growth rate of 21.5%. 

About the author

GE Digital

Driving Digital Transformation

GE Digital connects streams of machine data to powerful analytics and people, providing industrial companies with valuable insights to manage assets and operations more efficiently. World-class talent and software capabilities help drive digital industrial transformation for big gains in productivity, availability and longevity. We do this by leveraging Predix, our cloud-based operating system, purpose built for the unique needs of industry.