Saturday, October 08, 2005

Robotics – Emerging Technologies Converging to Create New Innovations

Several technologies are converging to make robotics one of the next important technical industries. Robotics consists of three segments: Industrial Robotics, Service Robotics, and Personal Robotics. Industrial robots are the kind of articulated robotic arms you see on TV welding body parts together on an automotive production line. Personal robotics are those purchased by individuals for entertainment and education, or to assist you in some way. The Roomba vacuum cleaner is an example of a personal robot. Lego’s Mindstorms is an example that provides education, while Sony’s Aibo dog provides entertainment.

Service robots perform some function that humans find repetitive or even dangerous. The Mars probe – Spirit, is one example. It travels to Mars to explore the surface. The Predator aerial vehicles used for surveillance in battle zones is another example. There’s even an example in which Robots are used to test social interaction of toddlers. Check out this story about UC San Diego’s efforts to measure a two year olds reaction to a robotic teacher.

Industrial robots move very fast and by themselves. If you can see the robot moving then you are probably losing money on it. If a person comes near the robot, the machine powers down. Personal and service robots must interact with humans and thus operate at slower speeds.

Currently, the industrial sector leads the way, but the personal and service sectors are growing faster and will overcome the industrial sector by the end of this year and by some estimates will be double it in 2010.

With the introduction of the Roomba, iRobot placed itself on the map as providing the first robot price competitively for a service task. For $200 you can now have a robot vacuum your house. The Roomba is popular enough that websites show how to hack your Roomba.

At the Robonexus conference, I had the chance to hear a speech from Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot. iRobot is currently in the “quiet period” as they go public, so their CEO, was not able to tell us much about work going on at iRobot.

He did however, show some cool findings in the world of robotics—in particular personal robots. From Korea, Samsung and Yujin have new personal robots for entertainment. There’s now a robot air freshener. Why is it interesting? The inventor thought an air freshener would be more useful if it could move around. Another one called the Home Transport Robot looked similar to a toilet seat with a monitor on it but it wouldn’t look out of place in the home. Intouch offers the Health RP-6, Physical Avatar Robot which allows one to log in over the web and project oneself through a monitor on the robot. Doctors use it to see patients located in distant locations. Korea has a Robo-wrestling league made up of toy robots that perform martial arts based on hand controls from the user.

Colin Angle went on to describe the various challenges we face in the military, healthcare and energy.

In the military he made the following points:
-Hunting IEDs (improvised explosive devices) is a constant task
-19 of 33 active brigades are currently deployed
-1 in 3 reserve units mobilized
-Vehicles in Iraq/Afghanistan are used at a 3 to 5 year rate in 12 months.
-Median lifetime cost is $4M per soldier

In the healthcare industry:
-Health care expenditures concentrated in the final years of one’s life.
-Nursing home and assisted-living facility costs continue to rise.
-90% of nursing homes are understaffed

In the energy industry:
-95% of world now beginning to use modern energy.
-2005, oil demand is 85M barrels per day now outpacing probable supply.
-Spare capacity used up by surge demand.
-Finding new oil sources takes time.

The bottom line is current methodologies cannot sustain in the medical, military, and energy industries. The good news is that invention continues and robotics brings potential solutions. He cited the following advancements that will enable the robotics industry:

-Moore’s law—exponential growth continues to thrive

-Cell processor – is an example of Moore’s law not dying. The Sony Playstation will have four of them giving it a 1 Teraflop of performance. If you are building a robot then you should know about it.

-iPod – storage increasing – at current trends 20 years from now it will have 40 Petabytes. You could carry one million books in a single iPod by 2010.

-Pervasive low-level wireless is coming including RFID and ad-hoc networks

-Hi-level Wireless networks – 802.11g is five times faster than the original version, and 802.16 – WiMax gives broader access and bandwidth.

-Location awareness is moving to the next generation

-Real-time vision is becoming a reality.

-Microphone arrays are coming on the scene.

Rob Ambrose, Director of Johnson Space Center, NASA spoke on New Robots for New Missions—NASA Exploration Requirements for Robotics Technology

Robotics plays a key part in President Bush’s latest directive to NASA as follows:

1. Complete the international space station by 2010 and return space shuttle to flight as soon as possible
2. Develop and test a new space craft to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014 to carry astronauts to other worlds
3. Return to the moon by 2020 as a launching point to missions beyond and use robotics for exploration.
4. Human missions to Mars using robotic missions are the trail blazers.

NASA has used robots for years. Veterans include the Lunar rover, RMS/SSRMS (space station remote manipulator system), and MER (Mars Exploration Rover) with new ones coming online including Robonaut, Mini-AERCam, Tendrill, Spidernaut, and Scout.

Robonaut —resembles a person with articulated fingers, hands, and arms with multiple degrees of freedom. It has over 100 sensors in the arm. Both arms can work together for more complex tasks. The head has stereo-optic vision with LEDs for providing illumination. Crafting robots similar to humans lets robots and humans share the same tools. It is meant to act as an assistant working with a human and resembles the robots used in the movie, iRobot. It started in 1998 and came into it’s own in 2000. They even have a version that sits the upper body of Robonaut on a Segway for mobility.

Mini-AERcam – free flying camera for inspecting the shuttle on its own. It’s about the size of volleyball. It’s currently under test.

Tendrill – another inspection system. It is 1cm in diameter and can extend out a full meter to take pictures inside nooks and crannies. It’s important for looking under thermal blankets and inspecting for damage on the inside.

Spidernaut – a 600lb, 8 legged arachnid --- It’s designed to walk on the outside of the spacecraft without doing damage to the craft. It can walk lightly despite its weight. It’s designed to walk across gossamer structures such as solar arrays.

SCOUT – next generation of lunar rover. Once you dismount, it can follow you like a robot. It contains additional oxygen for recharging astronaut’s space suits.

Technological developments in microprocessor technology, wireless technology, image processing, speech recognition, motion sensor technology, and embedded systems development tools are just some of the technologies enabling robotics.

Increased funding from the military and the private sector also fuel innovation. DARPA funds Grand Challenge which offers a $2M prize to a team that can create a robot that travels autonomously 280 kilometers in less than ten hours. This is the second year for the contest. Last year brought no winners. This year may bring none as well which surprises some given the available technology should enable someone to win. The challenge appears to be integrating a vast number of technologies into a single working system. To view the challenges one team faced in their efforts to qualify, click here.

Stewart Tansley from Microsoft Research spoke on robotics-enhanced computer science instruction. According to Tansley, computer science education is in decline especially in the USA. The number of students entering computer science programs at the university level is decreasing. The internet era of the late 90s brought a peak with a dramatic decline since then. Robotics is one answer to this problem.

Today, computing is inherently applied with more applications that deal with the physical world. Devices and computers are working together. Robotics is an ideal focus area because not only is it cool, but it builds problem solving skills, team-based learning, and provides a deeper learning experience.

Education robotics today include Lego, FIRST, Botball, NASA and more with extensive programs in academic research. Examples of teaching computer science using Robotics include Lego Mindstorms.

It’s not surprising that Microsoft believes the PC is the answer to the challenges in robotics teaching today. Tansley cited how the PC addresses these challenges:
You can see more about his work here.

If you are working with Robotics, I would like to hear from you. You can reach me at

Best regards,
Hall T. Martin


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