Romotive, which completed two rounds of Kickstarter funding and is buoyed by angel and venture capital backing, is hoping to turn profitable this year. It just landed a deal with a national retailer to start selling its bots—which cost less than $50 to make—this fall.
Romo may not exemplify the Jetsonian ideals we hold when it comes to servile bots—he can't fetch anything but songs from your iTunes library—but billions of dollars are being spent on service robots toiling away in places undesirable for people: war zones, space and natural disaster sites.
(Watch: Baxter, the robot challenging China on manufacturing)
Unsurprisingly, the government is a big supporter, namely through the DoD's research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). "A perfect application for robots is a case where you've got an environment where you really can't send in a person, but you need to have some kind of stand-in," said Brian Gerkey, CEO of the Open Source Robotics Foundation. The nonprofit group provided the simulation software for DARPA's Virtual Robotics Challenge, where engineers are vying to build robots capable of dealing with disasters like the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.
"The technology doesn't currently exist to address what turns out to be an infrequent but very high impact problem," Gerkey said.
While first-responder robots in this sense haven't yet arrived—iRobot, the $436 million company best known for its Roomba vacuum cleaner, sent its Packbots to Fukushima to survey the insides of the damaged nuclear plant—other service droids that started out as DARPA-funded research are already at work, mostly via university technology transfer programs.
Take ReconRobotics' Throwbot, whose underlying tech was first developed by engineers at the University of Minnesota. The researchers were trying to address tactical problems that arose in the aftermath of the Black Hawk Down incident of 1993, when members of the Somali militia shot down two American helicopters in Mogadishu, leaving a group of soldiers stranded.
(Read more: US still perceived as land of opportunity, for some)
"These soldiers, stranded in an urban area, had no way of finding anything out about their surroundings," said Alan Bignall, ReconRobotics' founder and CEO. When Bignall, a serial entrepreneur looking for his next gig, found the students' prototype in 2006, the funding ties with DARPA had ceased. "I spoke with the Army who had been testing it at the time and decided it was something we should bring to market," said Bignall. "But no one was waking up and saying 'I need to buy a 1-pound robot today.' We had to create the market as we were growing the product."
Rather than continue testing with the Army, Bignall began speaking with SWAT commanders around the nation and, with his crew, hand-built 30, then another 70, robots. "I wanted to get a hundred of these into 100 different hands," he said. "I knew we didn't have a business if we didn't get the SWAT guys to buy it."
Word spread about the two-wheeled, tube-and-tail bot that could be dropped 30 feet down or thrown 120 feet laterally and not sustain much damage. Companies like iRobot had been selling situational surveillance robots for years, but they were the stuff of bomb squads—heavy, complex to operate, and designed to navigate rugged, outdoor terrain. The Throwbot fits inside tactical vests.
After the first generation sold out, ReconRobotics raised a series of angel equity so it could equip its products with infrared capability—SWAT customers' most urgent request—and eventually, hired a local contract manufacturer to ramp up production.
The company, whose products are still made in Minnesota, turned profitable in 2011. About 1,500 of its machines are being used in Afghanistan, in reconnaissance missions as well as at vehicle checkpoints, where soldiers can maneuver the bots under cars from 300 feet away.
The company, which sells its products in 34 countries, sees imminent growth internationally, targeting military, police and counterterrorism organizations. But like many sci-fi futurists, Bignall sees his robots someday infiltrating other sectors like farming, where, equipped with sensors, they may be able to sense fertilizer levels in crops. In the case of growing corn, the droids would roll up and down the rows, testing the soil and injecting nitrogen where necessary.
"We started this business in the worst economic climate since the worst depression," said Bignall, adding that the cost efficiency of his products is particularly attractive to folks handling shrinking military and police budgets (ReconRobotics also makes a stripped-down Throwbot that costs less than $5,000 for non-SWAT police officers). "It's been very rewarding to see it grow even in that time."
—By Maggie Overfelt, Special to CNBC.com.