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29 Apr 2016, 15:42

Would You Trust a Robot to Change Your Baby's Nappy?

The recent focus on the development of driverless cars has brought automation and control very much into the public eye. Even the word Robot is a relative newcomer to the English language, originally appearing in 1920 in the novel “Rossum’s Universal Robots” by Karel Capek. 

Looking back further though we find that Robots and fantastic machines have actually been part of science fiction long before they became fact. There was Talus, the "iron man" who mechanically helps Arthegall dispense justice in The Faerie Queene the epic poem by Edmund Spenser published in 1590. Or we could read about Olimpia the automaton who captivates the hero Nathanael so much he wishes to marry her in E. T. A. Hoffmann's Der Sandmann in 1814. 

In more recent sci-fi we may have met Braman, a curiously named robot invented by Brains, appearing in three episodes of Thunderbirds (1965–1966), and the imaginatively named "Robot" in Lost in Space (1998), starring alongside Matt Le Blanc in the movie based on the TV series

Nowadays robots are accepted as part of everyday life, with barely a week going by without video footage of robots on car assembly lines https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4IlEyLIL50 appearing on the TV news.

A constant thread of the development history of robots has been the overarching question “where is the limit of their capabilities?”. Media productions such as Star Trek 

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and Ex Machina 

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have focused on the existence of droids with apparently fully human characteristics. These and other movies and TV shows have focused on the challenging social and moral issues around the place of human replica droids in society, a scenario which will be played out in real life in the not too distant future.

On a different tack, industrial robots have been constantly challenged by the question “what can a robot do?”

So, would you trust a robot to change your baby’s nappy?

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If you’re still undecided, here are some examples of challenging tasks robots have achieved so far

http://mentalfloss.com/article/30898/10-robots-very-specific-tasks

Whilst driverless vehicles are being portrayed as breaking news in the control technology world, part of my own experience dating back more than 20 years is as a Project Manager for self-guided vehicles, working in industrial materials handling environments.

These vehicles were the clever version of the wire-following AGVs and in contrast did navigate their own optimised routes around their working environments following software defined road systems. Task allocation was completed by radio link and the actual navigation was carried out by triangulation from a rotating laser scanner on the vehicle.

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Despite being separated by decades of history the key issues surrounding the introduction of these industrial vehicles has much in common with the much publicised aspects surrounding driverless vehicles on public highways. Clearly safety is a prominent talking point. In both examples, humans are operating in the same space as the vehicles. Control systems technology needs to be implemented to replace the “direction” previously offered by the human driver of traditional vehicles. Whilst we all know “to err is human”, somehow we expect technological systems to be infallible, removing the risk of accidents. So, through the application of compliance and risk assessment procedures we humans produce systems which are designed to be safe and reliable in all circumstances. Many of the products RS offer are relevant to the design of such systems.

The future presents an ever larger canvas on which RS can help paint the picture of technological innovation, and we are all holding the brush! Stay tuned for further updates...

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My broad based technology degree equipped me well for a range of roles including project engineering, training, change management and marketing engineer. My career has included a rich variety of experience in industry sectors including food packaging, automotive, robotic vehicles and materials handling. I have taught electronics and product design in schools as well as implementing new technology for students such as laser cutters and 3D printers.

29 Apr 2016, 15:42