Guest blog by Albert J. Wavering , the Chief of the Intelligent Systems Division of the Engineering Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Robots have explored Mars, descended into volcanoes, and roamed the ocean depths. Today, they also perform humdrum chores, such as vacuuming and waxing floors. And in between the ordinary and the extraordinary, robots are carrying out a growing array of tasks, from painting and spot-welding in factories to delivering food trays in hospitals.
But, when it comes to these automated machines, you haven’t seen anything yet, especially in the manufacturing world, where robots were first put to use 50 years ago in a General Motors factory. In fact, the first factory robot became something of celebrity, earning an appearance, along with one of its inventors, on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson .
Even today, however, manufacturing robots are akin to electromechanical hulks that blindly perform relatively simple, repetitive jobs and—Tonight Show demo notwithstanding—must be safely separated from human workers by fences and gates.
In laboratories around the world, the race is on to build a new generation of robots that are smarter, more flexible, and far more versatile than the current one. A successful leap to more adept and adaptable robots could set the stage for a revolution in U.S. manufacturing that reaches from the largest factories to the smallest job shops.
Automation technology has found a place performing repetitive and, often, dirty and dangerous factory tasks. It also has helped U.S. manufacturers to achieve productivity increases that are the envy of the world.
But the best could be yet to come. The next wave of robots could be the springboard to new U.S. companies and new domestic manufacturing jobs.
A key aim is to develop affordable, readily adaptable robots that can assist—and even empower—human production workers. When people and robots can work together safely in the same space, a whole new class of more sophisticated jobs can be accomplished—inspecting, assembling parts into complex shapes, fetching tools or materials, and more. Humans would be in charge, delegating tasks and redirecting robots to perform new chores.
By taking full advantage of advances in sensors, processing, and communication technologies, next-generation robots should become, in effect, easier to train or teach, and better able to function in uncertain and changing environments.
In turn, these advanced applications and capabilities would enable U.S. manufacturers to respond rapidly to changes in demand and to quickly seize upon new opportunities afforded by product and process innovations. The basis of competition would shift from lowest-cost labor to highest productivity and product quality.
The Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)  is tackling one of the main obstacles to achieving this vision of next-generation robots—the safety of interactions between human workers and robots. With industry partners, NIST is developing performance measurements, standards, and tests that will enable robot builders and their manufacturing customers to evaluate how well new automation technologies meet safety requirements and to compare how different robots stack up.
This work  will lead to the safe designs and operating features of next generation robots that will interact with people. NIST contributes its research results and technical expertise in helping to lead development of robotic safety standards issued by the Robotics Industry Association and International Organization for Standardization, as well as safety standards for automated guided vehicles from the American Society for Mechanical Engineers and the Industrial Truck Association. NIST also pushes the state of the art in the design and performance of tiny “microrobots,” which have potential uses in areas from medicine to manufacturing, by helping to organize events such as the ICRA Robot Challenge .
The United States pioneered the development of robotic technology for manufacturing, a market now dominated by Europe and Asia. Capitalizing on our nation’s strong research capabilities, we have a chance to leapfrog the competition and boost U.S. manufacturing performance, creating new jobs in the process—jobs that will engage the minds and skills of future workers. For a dose of optimism, check out the results of this year’s FIRST® Robotics Competition  for high-schoolers, which attracted more 2,000 teams from 11 nations.
And to get a sense of where they might take us, scan the Computing Community Consortium’s roadmap for U.S. robotics .