Rise of the robots

Rise of the robots


Rise of the robots

Having a world where robots are there to help us out in various aspects may soon become a reality. Take Japan, for instance, which has directed considerable resources to research in robotics. They have already employed over a quarter of a million robot workers and the number is expected to cross a million by 2030. In its 40th year of commercial production, the Japan’s robotics industry has gone beyond the traditional roles that robots play such as placing objects on conveyor belts. They are now experimenting with sociable robots that can interact in human environment like playing with children and attending the patients in hospitals. The International Robot Exhibition held in Japan recently, reflected the research that has gone into the sector. Advances in robotics are multi-pronged and cater to a variety of needs — from games and entertainment to defence, agriculture, health and communication.

Multi-pronged advances

The research in Artificial Intelligence (AI) has already developed robots that need not be programmed to do the routine pick-and-place automobile parts or turning screws. One such robot at the exhibition was known as the Hydra, the latest from the AI labs. At six feet eleven inches, it has been developed through a collaborative effort of four leading universities of Japan. It can work in disaster-hit zones, can shuffle the rubble after an earthquake, can extinguish fires, take photographs inside mines and tunnels and operate cranes or earthmovers. Despite its innocuous name, the robot works on a simple hydraulic principle, i.e., activated by multiple pumps that regulate the pressure of oil in its body, and do not use the conventional motors. If tumbled, it can lift itself up on its own and stabilise again.

The robotics industry is driven by three distinguishable trends: recovery of the auto sector worldwide, wage inflation which compels industries in the West to deploy robots for repetitive jobs and expansion in robot capabilities. They were once thought to be an ideal replacement for human beings in hazardous jobs, but it didn’t prove practical. However, it still retains relevance. Take for instance, the snake like ACM-R5H robot which can inspect the depths of a dam, plug holes and can work in highly turbid waters. On the other hand, the ACM-R4.2 can inspect narrow and uneven spaces such as attics, basements and nest of wild animals.

But now, the work is on to develop robots that can work faster and react to situations like humans do. “We are now trying to achieve high speed actuation,” says Niklas Bergstrom, Associate Professor in the Department of Creative Informatics, University of Tokyo. For instance, ‘Janken’, a rock-paper-scissor robot developed by the University of Tokyo, has hands that move faster than human hands (20 milliseconds per move compared to 60 milliseconds for a human). It can also scan a 250-page-book in under a minute. Its hands are moved by high-speed gears that flip pages at a tremendous speed, and it also has high-speed gaze control and image processor. This high-speed gaze control system is called Saccade Mirror. It can capture extremely dynamic objects such as a flying bird or ball in sport and games.

Unconventional applications
These advances are expanding the applications of robots to areas that were considered unconventional so far. According to Niklas, the self-driven cars developed by Google are robots too because they have to work in highly unstructured environments and perceive objects like human eyes do. The technology has led to the development of a series of cars and cranes that can operate in disaster zones.

On another level, robots are making forays into agriculture as well. Researchers  have come up with robots that can pick and grade fruits, harvest crops, find insects and climb trees. Yuriko Kato, chairperson, Robot Promotion Association for Regional Revitalisation of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, is promoting robots in farms. Tokyo University of Agriculture has developed robots for harvesting blueberries. Iseki and Company has come up with rice planting robots which can also take up the job of sprinkling fertiliser-mixed water.

More unconventional uses are being thought of by developers. Wall-climbing robots with electroadhesive feetpads beneath can run up a wall as smooth as glass and onto ceiling at a rate of six centimetres per second. They can be used to inspect the hulls of spacecraft. According to its developer Metin Sitti of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, this robot should prove to have far greater sticking power, thanks to fibres that are better than gecko feet.

A precarious path ahead
There’s just about a robot for everything. As a result, if there is any challenge, it gets eliminated. Take for example, measuring amorphous surfaces like a statute’s exterior or an art object. This has always been challenging but with a freestyle, hand-held robot-aided scanners that use lasers, it is no longer the case. Similarly, rapid prototyping is possible with desktop robots that can make models for toymakers, automotive factories, architects and machine tools. Another interesting robot is the Robo-clean that can clean solar panels up to 250 square metre during an eight-hour workday. This is helpful as grime reduces the efficacy of the solar panels over time.

Lifting something that is heavy on our own may be a little difficult. However, the belt-in robot makes it easier. With robot arms and legs that follow human limb movements, the new ‘Power Loader’ robot is designed to assist humans in heavy work by increasing the forces applied to its control grip and lifting heavy objects by the operator’s intuitive senses.

More stress on human-robot interactions could lead robotics to realms with uncalculated consequences. It was all right when robots could pick and place things, clean micro-holes inside atomic reactors, or even package and label products out of the assembly line.

Currently, more focus is given to fulfilling life demands rather than a scientific focus. The lines that once separated robots from humans have slowly started to blur and this could development could prove precarious to human beings.