Intelligent robots will be everywhere

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

The world of sentient machines, is fast approaching. Humanlike machines are increasingly take on the work of humans. As processing power increases exponentially, and as MEMS technology brings smaller and smarter sensors and actuators, robots are the breeding ground for future-generation products with new, varied and exciting applications.

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Check out, March 2003

The world of HAL and Data, of sentient machines, is fast approaching. Indeed, in some ways it has already arrived as humanlike machines increasingly take on the work of humans. As processing power increases exponentially, and as MEMS technology brings smaller and smarter sensors and actuators, robots are the breeding ground for future-generation products with new, varied and exciting applications.

Industrial robots

The vast majority of robots are used by the manufacturing industry, for repetitive tasks such as painting auto-bodies and simple assembly. Some 100,000 new robots were installed worldwide in 2000, nearly half of them in Japan, the biggest user. There were nearly 800,000 industrial robots in existence at the end of 2002 and this is likely to rise to almost 1 million by the end of 2004.

In the last decade the performance of robots has increased radically while at the same time prices have been plummeting. Today, manufacturing robots have a payback period as short as 1-2 years. In N. America, the price of robots relative to labor costs have fallen to 26, and as low as 12 if quality improvements are taken into consideration.

Sales of industrial robots have risen to record levels and there is huge, untapped potential for domestic chores like mowing lawns and vacuuming carpets.

New robot applications abound

As robot intelligence increases, and as sensors, actuators and operating mechanisms become more sophisticated, other applications are now multiplying. There are now thousands of underwater robots, demolition robots and even robots used in long-distance surgery.

Dozens of experimental search-and-rescue robots scoured the wreckage of the World Trade Center's collapsed twin towers. Teams of robotics experts were at Ground Zero operating experimental robots to probe the rubble and locate bodies. During the war in Afghanistan, robots were being used by the US military as tools for combat. They were sent into caves, buildings or other dark areas ahead of troops to help prevent casualties.

After the recent anthrax scares, work has been ongoing to replace postal workers with robots. Indeed, there is huge potential to mechanize the U.S. postal service and some 1,000 robots were installed last year to sort parcels. The U.S. postal service has estimated that it has the potential to use up to 80,000 robots for sorting work, although existing models are not suitable for sorting letters.

A giant walking robot is used to harvests forests, moving on six articulated legs, advancing forward and backward, sideways and diagonally. It can also turn in place and step over obstacles.

At UC Berkeley, a tiny robot called Micromechanical Flying Insect has wings that flap with a rhythm and precision matched only by natural equivalents. The goal is to develop tiny, nimble devices that can, for example, surreptitiously spy on enemy troops, explore the surface of Mars or safely monitor dangerous chemical spills.

A big increase is predicted for domestic robots for vacuum cleaning and lawn mowing. Robots to do these chores are practical today. An inexpensive house-cleaning robot was recently introduced a little battery-powered vacuum cleaner that scurries around the floor, sweeping up dust and dirt as it travels. Called Roomba, it costs just $199 and, by all accounts, is selling very well.

Rodney Brooks iRobot

Roomba is made by Massachusetts-based iRobot, one of many companies planning to launch a host of new robots over the next few years. New robotics products that will soon be introduced include autonomous floor cleaners and industrial tools built to do boring, dirty and dangerous work like inspecting oil wells. Of course, autonomous oil well inspectors aren't as thrilling as the robotic servants that some visionaries have predicted. But robotics and artificial intelligence are working their way into everyday life, albeit in less dramatic ways.

Rodney Brooks, Director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Chairman of iRobot Corporation, has been involved in this transformation for decades. His latest book "Flesh & Machines" explores many themes related to life with robots. The book centers on Brooks' own passion for creating what he calls "situated creatures" which we can eventually regard as our teachers and companions.

Brooks' MIT A.I. Lab is filled with robotic machines, from mechanical legs to humanoids that use human-like expressions and gestures as intuitive human-robot interfaces something Brooks believes will be critical to people accepting robots in their lives. The first generation of relatively mundane versions of these machines is already marching out of the lab.

Rodney Brooks has a vision of a post-PC future in which sensors and microprocessors are wired into cars, offices and homes and carried in shirt pockets to retrieve information, communicate and do various tasks through speech and gesture interfaces. He insists that the age of smart, mobile machines is already beginning. You just have to know where to find them in oil wells, medical labs, financial services and construction companies.

Military & defense applications

Now iRobot has a US Defense contract to build a robot, about the size of a suitcase, which can climb stairs, crawl over ditches, survive three-story falls. Instead of carrying bombs, this robot has eyes and ears, transmitting what it sees and hears over a wireless link. This is a "Packbot" which can be thrown into a vehicle and then hurled through windows of buildings where the enemy may have hostages.

In general, robotic systems are of great interest to the Department of Defense because they offer the ability to perform military actions at greater stand-off distances, allow dangerous missions to be performed with minimal risk to people.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the central research and development organization for the Dept. of Defense. The DARPA "Distributed Robotics Program" seeks to work with qualified companies to develop tiny, biologically-inspired robot designs and new methods of robot control for military applications. DARPA is particularly interested in micro-miniature robots because they can be produced at relatively low unit cost and offer unique mission advantages. They can be carried and deployed by individuals and small teams to augment human capability, perform hazardous missions, and accomplish tasks that previously could not be unimagined.

Potential applications include surveillance, reconnaissance, path finding, deception, weapon delivery, and small-scale actuation. For minefield detection, small sensors are mounted on hopping robots. Small robots can be sent into city pipelines for intelligence gathering. Robots used in large numbers can be used as decoys. Extremely small robots might be injected into small spaces to pick door locks.

Because micro robots are similar to small animals and insects, biologically inspired designs (jumping, climbing, crawling, slithering, etc.) coupled with the use of MEMS and smart materials offer possibilities for novel and unique locomotion mechanisms. MEMS technology enables the integration of mechanical and electronic functions on a single silicon chip. Advanced microelectronic packaging using multi-chip modules and incorporating mixed signal electronics allows development of new ideas, integrating robotic form and function.

Robots for military applications can either be fully controlled by humans, semi-autonomously controlled, or operate autonomously. To allow miniature robots to perform for extended periods of time in varied environments, innovative methods are needed to reduce power requirements, regulate energy use and provide rapid recharging.

Robotics an exciting new development arena

The typical Automation techie has knowledge and experience in instruments, PLCs, computers, displays, controls, sensors, valves, actuators, data-transmission, wireless, networking, etc. These are exactly the key requirements for development of robots and robotic systems. During this time of economic recession, Robotics can surely be a new arena of exciting and rewarding business development.

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Copyright 2003 : Jim Pinto, San Diego, CA, USA