A positive change is noticeable in the mindset of roboticists, moving beyond research for the sake of research, and even beyond exotic applications, they are now beginning to look at using robots to solve ‘real’ problems of ‘real’ people. As a consequence, we now see robots entering fields like healthcare, the care of the aged, education, mining, agriculture, and even housekeeping! But it might be a while before these become mainstream in India.
Define ‘macrocephalous.’ Easy. Ask engineering students about to take the TOEFL exam and they’ll tell you the definition. Define ‘robot’. Um, now, that is tough! A toy cat that can blink and dance to the music of your MP3 player is a robot. A simple, automated toy built by a kid using Lego’s Mindstorms junior-level kit, is a robot. A formidable-looking arm that fits the engine into cars in an automotive assembly line is also a robot. Space rovers are robots too!
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a ‘robot’ as, ‘a machine that looks like a human being and performs various complex acts; a device that automatically performs complicated, often repetitive tasks; a mechanism guided by automatic controls.’ The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) describes a robot as, ‘an automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multi-purpose manipulator programmable in three or more axes, which may be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications.’
By these definitions, some experts argue, even a microwave oven qualifies as a robot! Contradicting this, Rodney Brooks, director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory, once said in an interview, “To me, a robot is something that has some physical effect on the world, but it does it based on how it senses the world, and how the world changes around it. You might say that a dishwasher is a robotic system for cleaning dishes, but to me, it’s not – really. First, it doesn’t have any action outside the confines of its body. Second, it doesn’t know about the dishes inside it. It just spurts hot water around and swishes it, and whether there are dishes there or not, doesn’t affect its behaviour, so it’s not really situated in the world, it does not understand the world around it in any sort of meaningful way.”
But when Joseph Engelberger, the father of robotics, was once asked to define a robot, he famously remarked, “I can’t define a robot, but I know one when I see one.” That is a full stop for any futile attempt to define ‘robot’.
Yet, all these definitions do give us a rough idea about what comprises a robot, which needs to sense the outside world and act accordingly. There are motors, pulleys, gears, gearboxes, levers, chains, and many more mechanical systems, enabling locomotion. There are sound, light, magnetic fields and other sensors that help the robot collect information about its environment. There are micro-controllers powered by software that help the robot make sense of the environmental data captured, and tell it what to do next. There are microphones, speakers, displays, etc, that help the robot interact with humans.
And all these are advanced enough to put robots in space, in the assembly line, in coal mines, in operation theatres and even in battlefields. But have they advanced enough to take care of old people?
In this article, we take a look at some of the advanced applications that robots are being put to today, some of the fields that robots are expected to revolutionise in the future, and the technological challenges still posing hurdles.
Where man does not dare to venture
Robots have traditionally been put to use in environments that are too hazardous for man.
In factories, beyond the mundane activities. Industrial robots are often typecast as being just for mechanical jobs such as fitting parts into automobiles, packing goods and so on. But they play more significant roles under conditions that humans cannot survive, such as welding parts under excessively high temperatures, working in processes that release noxious gases, churning strong chemicals, and so on.
Where they don’t even have the ‘ground’ under their feet. Another field in which robots have been used is space exploration. A search for ‘robot’ in NASA’s website (www.nasa.gov) shows that ‘space rovers’ are getting better by the day.
The evolution of the BiRoD is an example of this. BiRoDs (biomorphic robots with distributed power) were built by Dr Kumar Ramohalli of the University of Arizona as aids for space exploration, as early as 1999. A design inspired by nature, a BiRoD does not have gears or other complex mechanical systems. It is built using ‘muscles’ made of wires and springs, which are connected to a battery. The current flowing through the ‘muscle’ wires causes their molecules to rearrange themselves in a smaller space, resulting in them contracting mechanically, just like real muscles do. As a result, reaction time is less, and the robots are very strong.
Several teams of students have worked on improving the BiRoD since then. The BiRoD is now capable of real-time, on-board fault-detection and repair in the large spacecrafts it ‘travels’ in. It can do a quick check and even fix the troublesome components, if the mission controllers approve.
However, even today, the robots used for space exploration are controlled by a human on Earth! A team at Carnegie Mellon University is working with NASA on what they call the ‘Mars Autonomy’ project, which aims to develop a robotic Mars rover that can act autonomously, manoeuvring its way around the planet, collecting samples, etc. The distance between Earth and Mars is so large that it sometimes takes several minutes for an instruction issued on Earth to reach the robotic rover in Mars. In such a case, autonomy will be a boon!
India is getting there too. The next manned phase of the Chandraayana project, slated for 2011, will be ably supported by a robot called SmartNav that IIT-Kanpur is building for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). IIT-K has already demonstrated a two-legged version with advanced laser sensors, built at a cost of $50,000. But several more improvements, including making the robot four-legged to make it more stable, are expected before it is ready for the moon!
To the rescue, pronto! Robots also work under precarious conditions, for search and rescue after disasters. A host of robots built by the University of South Florida’s Centre for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue were in action at the World Trade Centre site within hours after the disaster, to delve into the rubble and rescue survivors. Similarly, robots are also put to work in underground mines.
A lot of research today is focused on improving the rescue functions of robots. One notable development is the invention of a new locomotion system for robots developed at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, USA. Inspired by the way the single-celled amoeba moves, the robots developed at Virginia Tech can propel themselves using their outer surface. Since they do not have unwieldy wheels or legs sticking out of their structure, these robots can easily move in narrow or low cavities, under debris, etc.
We even make them go to war. The faithful bots do not hesitate to enter evenÂ dreaded battlefields. Their use in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars makes us wonder if robots have indeed become intelligent! ‘Battle bots’ of various shapes and sizes were deployed to defuse landmines, search for criminals hiding in caves, search for bombs under cars and in buildings, for espionage and a lot else! To describe their work is matter enough for another article, but the role they played is obvious from the fact that these bots were even awarded medals!
These robots were controlled by humans, but following the war, a contest was launched in Singapore to design autonomous ‘urban warriors’ that can autonomously search buildings, detect and defuse bombs, etc, even in crowded urban localities. Singapore’s Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) has offered one million Singapore dollars as prize money for whoever can develop such a robot. The final round of the contest will be held in May 2008.
Our prime minister, Manmohan Singh, also mentioned in a speech last year that Indian soldiers would soon have robots assisting them. We are yet to hear more on that, though.