Welcome to our robot overlords

November 2014

Robotic manThe Robotic Industries Association (RIA) reports that since 2010 robotics sales in North America have increased an average of 26 per cent each year. Brian Runciman MBCS looks at the recent development in robotics.

Of the statistic cited above, automotive-related industries saw a 97 per cent increase in orders but growth was also noted in the semiconductor, life sciences, and food and consumer goods industries.

Those stats are interesting because they come from a ‘beverage industry’ magazine that considers its own industry to be lagging in this area. However, demonstrating the inroads that robotics is making in society in general, it also reports that, ‘Beverage-makers use robots for handling everything from drink bags to mixed pallets, and they are almost always squeezed for space.’

As with so much in the area of technology there are entrenched views, with optimists seeing robotic automation as a way to free people from day-to-day boring chores and introducing new types of work to replace any attendant job losses.

The pessimists’ view tends to focus on the negative social implications, with even white-collar highly-skilled workers potentially being displaced by advanced machines. Robots that can take on tasks that are repetitive or can cause strain and injury to humans have obvious plus-points that, for example, the motor industry has been taking advantage of for years. But the implications of taking more skilled roles have yet to be seen.

Bill Gates wrote in Scientific American back in 2007 that we would soon see a robot in every home, noting the similarity in robotic industry growth to that of home computers in the 1970s and 1980s. Again this year he warned of jobs losses caused not by a little plastic machine sitting at your desk to replace you but by software automation - robots can be virtual too! 

It’s a dirty job

Roboticist Rodney Brooks introduced Baxter in 2012. This robot was specifically designed for simple industrial jobs such as loading, unloading, sorting and handling of materials - in short to perform the dull tasks on a production line. It also sports an animated face. Baxter doesn't just perform pre-defined rapid movements, because it has sensors in its hands and arms allowing it to adapt to its surroundings. This means it doesn’t require a safety cage to work in.

In the building industry robots are being touted more for use in off-site prefabrication than on building sites - which are much more unpredictable environments and very complex for a robot. Human oversight is thought likely to be necessary for the foreseeable future.

Other low-level jobs that have robotic assistance include machines designed to take tools and materials to human workers on automotive assembly lines, robotics that take the guesswork and effort out of palletising boxes of different sizes, shapes and weights and more.

Clean jobs are in for robotic automation too. It could soon become standard to use robots to help stack burgers, sliced meats and sandwich kits in the food industry. They are now suited to this work as food-grade, single-arm robots that can be washed down become more available.

Reportage

And the white collar worker is not immune from risk. Take Quakebot, an earthquake algorithm which serves as a robot reporter for the Los Angeles Times. It reported an earthquake which struck California in March 2014 within three minutes of it occurring. And robots are already being used to compile corporate earnings reports, automate murder stories in Los Angeles and to write specialist interest stories, such as how a fantasy football team has performed, reports Aviva Rutkin in New Scientist.

Military

As military spending declines in the US, robotic manufacturers are increasingly marketing their robotic systems for civil uses. An exhibition of robotic vehicles at the Unmanned Systems 2014 trade show in Orlando showed a trend where companies are stressing the use of robotics in public safety, search and rescue operations and emergency management.

Unmanned air vehicles were pioneered by the military and are finding a number of non-military applications, such as remote photography, although experts expect the US commercial market to remain small until the FAA allows their widespread use in national airspace.

May I help you?

Back in 1986 the movie Aliens introduced audiences to a robotic assistance suit - a ‘powerloader’ as the scriptwriters called it. In the film the model could not stand on its own and was held up with wires or a pole through the back attached to a crane. Sigourney Weaver had a stunt man to move the arms and legs for her. But reality has rather caught up.

Robotic exoskeletons to give humans superhuman strength have been tested by Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering in Okpo-dong, South Korea. Robots already run a large portion of their hugely complex assembly system. New Scientist reports that  at one shipyard, robots do 68 per cent of all welding as well as carrying out jobs from cutting and grinding steel to polishing freshly assembled hulls, with minimal human oversight.

And robots have been around quite a while even outside the automotive industry.

In health, the da Vinci Surgical System has been in widespread use since 2001 and has helped surgeons embrace surgical robots. It uses a magnified 3D high-definition vision system and tiny wristed instruments that bend and rotate to a far greater extent than the human wrist. Because the surgeon essentially has his vision enhanced, along with the increased precision, dexterity and control the machine supports, its use requires minimal surgical invasiveness - reducing recovery time and so on.

Also debuting in 2001 was CyberKnife, which delivers radiotherapy more accurately than standard radiotherapy by means of targeted radiation from a robotic arm that allows the energy to be directed at any part of the body from any direction. This method also means that the patient does not need to be immobilised in a frame for effective therapy.

In a more social application from 2014, one of the papers in this BCS State of Play report shows a system whereby multiple robotic wheelchairs can automatically move alongside a companion, enabling a small number of people to assist a substantially larger number of wheelchair users effectively.

Robots may not be one to every home as yet, certainly not in the form a butler-style Asimo robot, but in business they are making more inroads, and the growth looks set to continue.

The full BCS State of Play report ‘Robotics - civil and military applications, future developments and other considerations’ is available exclusively to BCS members in the Institute’s secure area (login required).

Further reading

 
Image: iStock/167172846

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    Elmo Jones wrote on 27th Nov 2014

    Hopefully sooner than later, these Robots will replace the awful Slave Labour, often children, employed by Brand name companies in poor countries.

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