Friday, June 20, 2008

Robots are getting cleverer and more dexterous. Their time has almost come.

A robot is defined not by its appearance, but by how it is controlled. The more automated it is and the more it can determine its behaviour, the more likely it is to count as a robot. [Many] do not look at all human: most are blobs on wheels or, if they are airborne, they may look like insects. But they are robots nonetheless.

Four trends were on show [at Automatica, a two-yearly robotics trade fair held in Munich]: robots are rapidly becoming more responsive, cheaper, simpler to program and safer. Take each in turn.

The fair introduced Roboshaker, an automated bartender, created by PAAL, a German company that specialises in packaging systems. Roboshaker, based on a small robot made by Japan's FANUC, can mix a fair cocktail and clear up afterwards. Whenever it picks up a can of drink to add to the ingredients, it examines the lid with a camera so that it can work out where to find the ring-pull.

Vision gives robots the power not only to do more in factories, but also to spread into other industries, such as the food and drinks business, which struggles to find people to do lots of boring, repetitive and unpleasant jobs.

Robots are also gaining a sense of touch. Sensors can analyse the surface of materials and, using the amount of resistance they show, work out the force to apply to an object. Giving robots touch allows them to be gentle and to handle things that come in many shapes and materials.

The falling cost of computing power makes it practical to give robots features like vision, touch and awareness, says Charlotte Brogren of Sweden's ABB Robotics. The producers that are part of the SMErobot initiative are starting to make light robots small enough to sit on a workbench. When the job is done, they can be picked up and moved somewhere else. That may appeal to carpenters and small engineering firms.

“One of our goals is to move robots from the factory to the home without any safety fence,” says Toru Miyagawa of Toyota.

It makes sense for a robot that carries someone to look like a wheelchair. A robot chair could be told where to go. It would know how to steer itself without banging into anyone. Later this year Toyota aims to put two-wheeled robotic chairs, able to stabilise themselves, into a Japanese shopping centre and some of its company hospitals. They look a bit like large Segways.

Care-O-Bot is a single-armed robot that rolls along on spherical wheels. It is a butler, fetching and carrying, working appliances and making telephone calls. It is built by Germany's Fraunhofer Institute with parts from SCHUNK, a robotics specialist, and is the type of service robot that is closest to production. Care-O-Bot can sidle up to Roboshaker, fetch a drink and serve it on a silver salver.

Article Link (Economist)

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