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For a concept that has caught the imagination of both innovators and the public since the early twentieth century, nailing down a definition for what makes a machine a robot can be as slippery as a Teflon politician caught with their hand in the proverbial cookie jar. Ask 10 roboticists and you’ll get 11 answers, especially since AI has seeped across so many different electronics sectors. However, most definitions generally revolve towards the idea of a machine that can sense and manipulate its environment with a degree of intelligent autonomy.
The word itself first emerged in 1921, from Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. - Rossum's Universal Robots - where 'robot' comes from the Czech 'robota' which is compulsory or forced labour. Outside of fiction, robots did not begin to make a real-world impact until 1961 when the first industrial robot, called Unimate, joined the assembly line at the General Motors diecasting plant in Trenton, New Jersey; paving the way for the rapid automation of car assembly.
Year on year, robotics innovations are flourishing at breakneck speed and in this article we take a brief tour of just a tiny fraction of the impact they are having across every area of life.
There won’t be many people who haven’t heard of the iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaners (though you may be less familiar with their Braava jet® mop cousins) as they have been around for over a decade but the smart home-help market has expanded to include Yarbo robotic yard help and even companionship with robots like Sony’s Aibo or Hanson Robotics’ Sophia at the high end.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of home-help right now is the Moley R-kitchen which not only learns what you like, makes recommendations and keeps track of ingredient quantities, it can make your meals for you! It comes complete with patented five-finger robotic hands that can sense pressure from different directions so they can use standard cookware and utensils (and learn to use new equipment), operate touchscreen appliances, and tidy up kitchen surfaces when it’s finished. Where do I sign up?
R-Kitchen in action
Food production has historically been a labour-intensive industry, especially at seed time and harvest so is a ripe candidate for automation. Emerging production techniques in controlled environment agriculture (like vertical farming, hydroponics and aquaponics) particularly lend themselves to robotic assistance, but there is still plenty of help for tasks in unstructured, outdoor environments.
To automate harvesting, companies like Tortuga AgTech, Harvest Automation and FFRobotics use various computer vision, geopositioning and machine learning techniques to identify and harvest fruit and vegetables. Even delicate items can be harvested robotically using tools like Harvest CROO's strawberry harvester or Cambridge University's Vegebot that can pick lettuce without crushing the plant.
To help reduce herbicide use, automated weeding robots like Carbon Robotics’ LaserWeeder use AI and computer vision to handle weed control for speciality crops. Nexus Robotics has a weed-yanking autonomous robot called La Chevre, that uses artificial intelligence to differentiate between weeds and crops while also gathering data to help with soil analysis and monitoring.
There are also numerous controlled environment farming companies who have brought farming indoors to the robots. Bowery Farming in New York is a vertical farm using robotics, LEDs and artificial intelligence to grow leafy greens and herbs. Iron Ox in San Carlos, Texas and AppHarvest in Burlington, Massachusetts are both greenhouse growers using AI and robotics to reduce water consumption and increase crop yields. All the Iron Ox produce is grown in heavy hydroponic pods.
The role of robotics in healthcare and medicine has already been significant, with robots being used in surgery, prosthetics and many other medical procedures.
The Da Vinci Surgical System
Already in its fourth generation, the da Vinci surgical system is a versatile minimally invasive surgery (MIS) robotic assistant that is helping to improve patient outcomes for a wide range of surgical interventions. The four robot arms hold surgical instruments and precision optics, which allows for extremely accurate, repeatable movements during surgery.
At the other end in terms of scale, a South Korean team recently demonstrated their robot was able to navigate autonomously to an artery in a pig, deliver contrast dye, and safely navigate back to an extraction point. This proof-of-concept paves the way for miniature robots travelling through blood vessels to surgically remove lesions or to clear blocked arteries and vessels from the inside.
Another technology that has come a long way is the medical exoskeleton for spinal injury rehab and helps with lower limb mobility problems. Japanese robotics company Cyberdyne (despite the somewhat dodgy name) have FDA approval for their HAL [Hybrid Assistive Limb] technology, as do SuitX with their PHOENIX Medical Exoskeleton and Ekso Bionics with their EksoNR and Ekso Indego® Personal exoskeletons.
Recognising the cost of developing a robot that can operate completely autonomously in messy, and optically noisy work environments, there has been something of a cognitive shift in the industry towards collaborative robots - or cobots - designed to work alongside humans and take some of the repetitive strain, while being much more cost effective for small and mid-sized companies.
One obvious example of this is the industrial, powered exoskeleton for lifting and loading like the Sarcos Guardian® XO®.
Guardian XO Exoskeleton
Leading the way at the high end of this sector is Boston Dynamics who have never failed to impress with their range of cutting-edge robots, like Spot the agile robotic dog designed for Automated remote or hazardous zone inspections or Atlas the humanoid robot that can dance, somersault and do parkour and was recently shown carrying out tasks on a simulated construction site. Even I’m impressed by these guys, and that’s a hard thing to do these days.
Boston Dynamics Atlas robot
One company looking to take this work even further and make the general-purpose humanoid robot a reality is robotics startup Figure. What gives them a shot at this goal is their exceptionally qualified team that includes CTO Jerry Pratt, a 20-year veteran at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) and DARPA Robotics Challenge finalist; along with 40 more engineers from institutions including IHMC, Boston Dynamics, Tesla, Waymo, and Google X, most of whom have significant experience with humanoid robotics and autonomous systems.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California is the NASA centre for robotic exploration and has been responsible for the Voyager, Curiosity, Cassini, Galileo, Mars rovers and many more missions that have wowed us for more than sixty years with astounding images of our solar system.
Building on their legacy, JPL are currently working on numerous robots for extra-terrestrial exploration like a four-limbed, 64-fingered rover named LEMUR (Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot), developed to scale rock walls by gripping with hundreds of tiny fish hooks on each finger.
LEMUR on a rockface
Small two-wheel rovers include a small, foldable, shoebox-sized robot called A-PUFFER that could someday explore areas of the Moon not accessible to astronauts, and BRUIE, a submersible rover that could eventually explore the subsurface oceans of the solar system’s icy moons.
Robotics is one of the most exciting and dynamic areas of the electronics industry, with funding pouring into widely divergent technologies including many we could not even cover in a short article, like swarm technologies and nanobots.
While this work opens the door to radical improvements in quality of life for humans everywhere, it has to be remembered that robots are simply tools and that means they are also open to abuse and can be turned to evil intent by bad actors. It is therefore incumbent on our legislators to make sure our legal system can offer protection against misuse while allowing the freedom to continue innovation.