Robots until recently were seen only in a hobbyist's garage or a university research lab. Today, however, they are being used for a variety of commercial and military purposes. Robotic vehicles go places where humans cannot, such as hundreds of meters down oil well pipes, flying on surveillance missions over mountainous terrain, searching the World Trade Center rubble or the Fukushima reactor after the earthquake. Spirit and Opportunity are examples of robots that remotely wandered the Martian surface collecting large amounts of unique data that will be studied for years to come. At the presidential inauguration in 2009, robots were driven underneath buses to check for bombs. Robotic vehicles have also played a larger and more important role in the armed forces in recent years. For example, 8,000 unmanned ground vehicles are currently deployed by the US Army, compared to only a few hundred less than ten years ago. In Iraq and Afghanistan, they are used to inspect and disarm potential improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or search caves and buildings. Hundreds of soldiers are alive today because an unmanned ground vehicle found or detonated an IED. They are also used for many other tasks such as surveillance and carrying loads for the soldier. Robots are also finding their way into commercial applications, such as cleaning rugs and gutters, helping disabled patients with rehabilitation, and guiding museum tours. In every one of these examples, robots were used to accomplish something that would have been inconvenient, dangerous - or impossible - for a human to do.
The robotics industry is in a situation similar to the automotive industry of a century ago, or to the personal computer industry of a few decades ago. It is transitioning from a hobbyist culture and emerging as a major new industry, as it is called upon to meet important societal needs. This was highlighted by Bill Gates in the December 2006 Scientific American article "A Robot in Every Home" in which he stated "... the robotics industry … is developing much the same way as the computer business did 30 years ago." The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has identified robotics as a top research and development priority for the nation: "Robotics is an important technology because of its potential to advance national needs such as homeland security, defense, medicine, healthcare, space exploration, environmental monitoring and remediation, transportation, advanced manufacturing, logistics, services, and agriculture. Robotics is also nearing a tipping point in terms of its usefulness and versatility as technologies such as software, chips, and computer vision continue to improve." The National Robotics Initiative that was announced this summer has increased the national visibility for robotics, and underscores the government's interest in this emerging area.