IEEE explains the future of robotic applications

Robots have long captured the public imagination. From Rocky’s house cleaning robot to trash compactor Wall-E there has been a fascination with the way that robots can aid humans for decades.

In many instances, it’s clear that robotics are already providing significant benefits to society, for example performing a significant aid role in the Japan crisis.

Antonio Espingardeiro, an expert in robotics at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), believes that uses for robots have much more to offer us in the future.

He spoke to TechEye about some of the ways in which robotics are set to revolutionise human life in the coming years.


Search & Rescue

Espingardeiro says that in terms of robotics used to aid recovery of humans and animals in inhospitable environments, the technology is already being used.

He points to hardware as an area that will make robotics more useful in applications such as field reconnaissance and monitoring and surveillance.

“In terms of hardware we could expect some degree of improvements over the next few years as ‘robotic modules’ will become more common and computing power cheaper.

“That means you could select and integrate your own modules in your own platform, like a giant Plug and Play Lego,” he says.

“As I also expect the prices of sensors and motors to go down over the next years, this will inevitably mean that more people can access and develop robots.”

Espingardeiro points to advancements in “locomotion systems”, which will enable significantly greater mobility, moving away from a Dalek-like phobia of steep inclines.

“Also, improvements in sensors and inclusion of high res cameras with wider fields of view are expected to make the role of robot operator more easy and efficient.

“Such machines could also be prepared with higher levels of dexterity for performing some kind of physical effect in the remote location, for example a robot with an arm for clearing a path for humans to pass, and so on.”

In terms of software, Espingardeiro expects “big changes”. We’re already on our way, partially thanks to a certain Microsoft console.

“With the new Microsoft Kinect system it’s now possible for a robot to detect humans on unstructured environments. The software gets updated information from the sensor and it can determine the distance from the robot to the humans. 

“Another feature is that the Kinect system allows you to reconstruct the 3D environment around you – for in the region of £150. In the past, the sensors and software for doing such a task were commercially too expensive, around £5,000, for the outcome produced,” he explains.

“Thereby in terms of vision systems this is just the beginning of a revolutionising journey into the world’s robotics perception.

“As vision and sound become more accurate, the inputs given to a computer to perform actions become more close to human reality, and this of course opens a new area of applications.”

Espingardeiro highlights cooperation between robots as an area which will see significant advancements: “The latest research in swarm optimisation tries to apply algorithms for robot coordination in scenarios where you want to achieve a common objective.”

“So swarm robotics,” he says, “inspired from flock of birds and fish, is an area that will allow computing systems to communicate different types of knowledge with each other and act more intelligently.

“In sum we are talking purely about telerobotics applications. Basically a human operator is in a remote location controlling a robot on the other side of the city or in another location around the planet.

“Usually these robots are equipped with onboard cameras, microphones and network systems to communicate through wireless signals, Internet or dedicated networks, which need strong signals.”

Espingardeiro predicts that such robotics will likely be widely used in, amogst other applications, fire services and in civil protection.

However the main stumbling block for use is not ncessarily having sufficient numbers of robots available, but actually having enough trained humans with expertise to use them.


Space Exploration

Telerobotics will play an even bigger part in space travel, according to Espingardeiro.

“Machines such as Robonaut 2 by NASA represent the future of space teleoperations,” he says.

“We could expect robots to be able to maintain space stations for longer periods of time. Robots could stay there and do their job for a long time.

“Latest advancements in robotic torsos and dexterity devices such as hands and grippers allow a robot to perform a wide range of tasks that astronauts performed in the past, such as opening and closing valves, or using human tools.

“A challenging concept here is the fact that as we continue to design our own facilities for human use – in space or on earth – it means robots have to regain more human skills.

“So in terms of ergonomy and architecture we might see some changes in the way facilities are built for allowing robots to easily navigate and interact with such environments.”

In terms of intelligence of the robots that will be rocketed into space, it is thought that greater autonomy will be necessary in forthcoming space explorations.

“One of the biggest problems with Mars Rovers such as the Opportunity and Spirit are the delays in communication between Earth and the robots.

“Meanwhile, AI algorithms are being developed for giving the robot enough degree of autonomy to explore certain areas whilst humans try to regain control of the machines back on earth,” Espingardeiro added.

“Satellite communications are primordial in these cases, however, as we experiment here on Earth, disruptions and interferences in the signals occurs quite frequently.

“Another aspect to bear in mind is that with relevant AI on board of a remote operated vehicle it can act as an advisor for the human operator back on earth, sensing things that would be biologically impossible to detect otherwise.

“So, new sensors and AI are expected in robots to be used in space exploration that will inevitably expand the frontiers of human knowledge.”

This is part one. Part two will discuss future trends in environmental, military and healthcare robotics.