Meanwhile, when the company uses a robot to install windows, it still needs one worker on site to run it using what looks like a video game console and the other to help position the window by hand. The three or so workers who are no longer needed to hoist the windows do other tasks.
"If we free up three guys, we have those three guys working on something else," Kraus said. "It's not like we're saying we need three less guys and are going to lay those guys off."
Meanwhile, many young entrepreneurs are creating new businesses that tap the power of robotics and automation.
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Hoovy, based in Los Angeles, is an advertising platform that uses drones to raise brand awareness. Founder Eugene Stark said these drones are like flying billboards. The 10-person business, which makes the drones in its headquarters, charges between $120 and $200 an hour for the advertising, depending on whether it is done on a weekday or weekend. Stark said it has used the drones to promote such things as the Glendora Wine Walk, an event where local merchants serve California wines, to a barber shop. "In one hour, three people booked appointments," he said.
To make sure the public is safe, Hoovy places tents under the drones and has designed them so the drones descend if the batteries start dying, he said. The company also abides by FAA guidelines recommending that licensed pilots operate the drones, which means paying a pro up to $40 an hour to be on site during promotions, he explained, adding that the company, which is turning a profit, is planning a campaign on crowdfunding site Kickstarter at the end of April.
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"We're seeing a lot of traction," he said.
Another new player is Eight Six Ninety-One Technologies. Avoiding the word "drones" because it evokes security concerns, the Chicago start-up, founded last fall by Jackie Wu, Ritwik Ummalaneni and Florent D'Souza, has developed a flying indoor security camera using a craft it calls "quad copters." The technology can also be used to monitor babies and pets, Wu said. "We can fly over to where Fido or Fluffy is when you're at work," explained Wu, a former consultant in the pharmaceutical industry. "You can pull out your phone, talk to them and say hi."
They plan to sell access to the product via a software-as-a-service model, where consumers will pay a recurring fee to use the technology. "We're still in the early stages," said Wu.
—By Elaine Pofeldt, special to CNBC.com