What is Robotics?
Robotics is the field of engineering that is focused on developing machines – usually by combining knowledge from both the field of mechanics and electronics – that are able to either fully or partly take over tasks that would normally be carried out by humans. As technology advanced, components such as processors, electric motors and different kind of sensors have become increasingly more compact and precise, stimulating the use of robotics in other fields than only that of manufacturing. Robotics, fueled by artificial Intelligence (AI) is rapidly changing the way we work and interact with technology.
The future of Robotics with Artificial Intelligence
Technological advances have drastically changed the capabilities of modern robotics, allowing them to be operational and effective in a wide range of industries. New technologies – such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and advanced computer vision – form the basis of the further development of robotics, allowing them to be used in processes which were, up until today, deemed to only be executable by humans.
For example, Machine Leaning (ML), closely related and usually considered as a sub-field of Artificial Intelligence, is the process of automatic detection of usable patterns within data. Increasingly more robotics and digital devices are equipped with different sensors, allowing the collection of large amounts of data. This data can be used as an input for machine learning algorithms in order to train robots and make them self-learning. This concept could, for example, be applied to the case of surgical robots: the robot can collect all sorts of data when being manipulated by doctors during a medical intervention. After enough time has passed – and sufficient data has been collected – this data can be used to train the robot to perform these medical interventions autonomously.
Robotic Use Cases
Robotic applications made their introduction within the medical field in the early 80’s. However, due to the drastic increase in preciseness, increasingly more medical personnel are relying on surgical robots during complex procedures. For example, the most innovative surgical robots – such as the Da Vince produced by industry leader ‘Intuitive Surgical’ – are currently able to insert up to three medical instruments in the body, allowing doctors to use a wide variety of different tools. In addition, research is being done in the field of surgical automation, where robots are being deployed to automate smaller, usually time-consuming and less complex, surgical tasks. For example: in 2013, the University of Berkeley proposed a robotic application which was able to automatically carry out non-complex suturing tasks. In time, such applications could alleviate some of the non-critical tasks of medical personnel, allowing them to focus on more complex tasks.
Increasingly more people are using e-commerce and home-delivery services in order to get their products to the front door. This requires large distribution hubs where the different products of an order need to be collected before it is ready for shipping. For this purpose, e-commerce companies are making use of autonomous mobile robots – also referred to as Automated Guided Vehicle or AGV – which are able to autonomously navigate through the warehouse’s isles and pick up the required products. The use of robotics for this purpose has some serious advantages. First, it reduces the labor costs, since human workers can be replaced by robots which only require an initial investment and, after that, low maintenance costs. Next, the use of robotics improves efficiency since they are able to work 24/7 and are not susceptible to processing errors. At last – similar to surgical robotics – AGV’s allow human resources to be redirected to more complex tasks within the company.
Home automation has come a long way since the turn of the century, with increasingly more people relying on small domestic robots to perform daily household tasks. One of the most prominent examples of domestic robots – that has recently enjoyed widespread success – is the iRobot Roomba: a robot vacuum cleaner that is used to autonomously drive around the house while vacuuming and mopping the floor. Equipped with a large range of different sensors (including bump sensors, drop sensors, and infrared sensors) and localization and mapping capabilities, the iRobot Roomba is able to cover every floor spot without damaging itself or your personal property. Alternatively, the Israelian company Robomow has designed robots which are capable of autonomously mowing the lawn. Typically they are not as powerful as gas-powered lawnmowers, but by cutting the grass multiple times a week they relieve their owners from this tedious task, allowing them to spend more time on other activities.
Increasingly more industrial companies are installing manufacturing robots – also referred to as industrial robots – to aid their manufacturing processes. There are several reasons why we are seeing this increasing shift from manual labor to labor performed by robotics. First, as was the case with warehouses robotics, manufacturing robots are able to operate 24/7 without losing precision or getting tired. This causes them to be very cost-effective and therefore a great investment for manufacturing companies. Second, industrial robots are able to work with a wide variety of different tools, allowing them to be employable in a wide range of scenarios, depending on production needs and other factors. At last, industrial robots are able to work with tremendous precision and, therefore, complete very complex tasks which human workers would not be capable of. However, introducing manufacturing robots in industrial companies may also have benefits for human workers since the robots are able to take over repetitive and boring tasks. It is expected that, in the future, increasingly more manufacturing robots will be used within industrial environments, allowing human workers to put more focus into research and development, marketing, and sales.
Robotics for Anomaly Detection and Reparation
One of the main advantages of using robots is that they are able to reach locations which would be dangerous – or even impossible – to reach for human beings. Therefore, robots are often used for anomaly detection within large and complex mechanical structures. An example is the inspection and monitoring of tunnel anomalies by using mobile robots which are able to autonomously navigate through a tunneling complex. In this case, the use of such robots is preferred, since most of today’s piping infrastructure was constructed over a century ago and may therefore pose a hazardous environment to humans. Equipped with camera’s, these robots can capture images of the infrastructure which can be inspected by trained personnel. Should an anomaly be detected, construction workers can be deployed in order to repair the anomaly. However, these days, more advanced mobile robot platforms are equipped with robotic arms and tools for repairing the problem themselves. In this case, the imagery data captured by the robot’s camera is used for human inspection to determine whether the repair was successful.
Strictly speaking, military robots – also referred to as artificial soldiers or robot soldiers – have been in use since the second world war. These early-version military robots consisted of unmanned ground vehicles which carried large amounts of explosives and were used to destroy tanks, buildings or bridges without risking their own human military forces. Since the second world war, robotic soldiers have dramatically improved, shifting military power to nations which possess excessive technological know-how. The General Atomics Predator, for example, is a remotely controlled drone that is used by the United States Air Force (USAF) for observing enemy territory and, if necessary, perform missile attacks. Alternatively, the Packbot – also designed and manufactured by the previously discussed iRobot – is used to scout and search places which are difficult are dangerous to reach. For example, the Packbot was used after the 9/11 attacks to help rescuers with searching through the buildings’ debris. In addition, Packbots were also used to perform a first assessment of the Fukushima nuclear plant after it was hit by magnitude 9.1 earthquake in March 2011.
In addition, these innovative technologies are shaping the next generation of robotics, allowing them to operate, feel and even look more human-like. Recent trends, for example, show increased interests into humanoid robots: robots that are designed to look like a realistic human and – powered by artificial intelligence and speech technology – are able to communicate likewise. Whereas such robots could be trained to perform simple household chores and thereby take over tasks from regular domestic robots, their ability to reason and think would allow them to aid in cognitive tasks as well. They could, for example, help with constructing a week schedule, provide company and comfort to elderly people or reply to in-depth, voice-controlled questions.
It is thought that the future of robotics lies with such smart humanoid robots, and that they will be implemented in a rapid pace as technology advances.
Are we seeing a Terminator soon? I don’t think so, but fact is, Robotics are getting smarter everyday and one day, potentially start thinking on it’s own.