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The first thing that comes to mind when we think about robotics is industrial and aerospace applications. But today's robots are appearing everywhere, from hospitals and warehouses to offices and homes. And there's much more to come as the technology gets more sophisticated and the players get bigger.
The numbers reveal the potential. Robotics research and development will grow considerably over the next decade, according to the International Federation of Robotics and Robotics Business Review. In 2015, global robotic shipments reached just over $26.9 billion. By 2025, that number will reach a whopping $67.9 billion, with the fastest growing categories being collaborative robots (that is, robots that work side by side with humans) and personal robots (e.g. friendly robots that can assist the elderly).
The numbers are one thing. But the real proof of what's to come can be found in the countless engineering R&D labs working on anything and everything related to robots. There you'll find cutting edge work in self-driving vehicles, search and rescue robots, and humanoid systems programmed to help people cook their own meals, remind them about their medications or even play board games.
There are even nanorobots that assist in tasks requiring absolute precision at the microscopic level – from single human cell harvesting and neurosurgery to semiconductor development. Or you might get a glimpse of prototypes of intelligent armbands that let a person move mechanical arms or hands at a distance simply by flexing a muscle or two – a major plus in handling jobs in hazardous environments.
A perfect case in point is the University of Waterloo, where robotics has been a major part of its engineering program for a number of years. In fact, it was one of the first universities to offer a full mechatronics program that combines mechanical, electrical and systems engineering in one. Another first was its nanotechnology engineering program.
Not surprisingly there is a very long list of candidates lining up to apply to these programs, and with good reason. Not only do they offer world-class courses, but there is an impressive list of global partners (e.g. Apple, Google) that are keen to offer co-op and internship opportunities for the school's brightest stars.
It was enough to inspire others to follow suit. Mechatronics, automation and robotics and industrial/mechanical engineering programs are now being offered through 38 universities and colleges in Ontario.
The University of Waterloo's faith in the future of robotics is best demonstrated by its plans for a new engineering building that will be home to the RoboHub. The RoboHub will be the first centre in the world to combine aerial, ground, maglev (magnetic levitation) and humanoid robotics development under a single roof.
It will also serve as a collaboration resource for North American, EU, Asian and Australian experts, according to William W. Melek, director of Mechatronics Engineering:
But it's not just universities pulling out the stops in discovering the next best thing on the robotics front. There is a solid community of financiers, start-ups, and industry and government agencies waiting in line to do their part to advance robotics in the years to come.
Together, it all that adds up to a bright future indeed.
April 13, 2016
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All figures are in Canadian dollars unless otherwise noted. Information is accurate at the time of publication.