Robotics & Mechatronics


Robots past and present

Second Quarter 2007 Robotics & Mechatronics

Most of the millions of robots in use around the world work on repetitive, hazardous or high precision jobs in industrial and related spheres ranging from vehicle assembly, packaging, warehousing, agriculture, military use, medicine and underwater exploration. Others are employed in domestic situations, including over a million robotised vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers and toys.

Most of the millions of robots in use around the world work on repetitive, hazardous or high precision jobs in industrial and related spheres ranging from vehicle assembly, packaging, warehousing, agriculture, military use, medicine and underwater exploration. Others are employed in domestic situations, including over a million robotised vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers and toys.

Social robots, usually in humanoid format, that can provide humans with companionship or amusement are showing some promise in experimental applications. These include Sony's robot pet dog and similar offerings to bring amusement and a substitute for human interaction to the young, sick, disabled and elderly.

InTouch Health RP-7 remote presence robot on ward rounds
InTouch Health RP-7 remote presence robot on ward rounds

In the medical arena robots are being used in surgery, remote patient monotoring and to help the disabled. Many people who have lost limbs or who have nervous system problems and infirmities are having their quality of life improved by robotics in the form of an increasing range of artificial body parts.

So far, humanoid robots have mainly been manufactured for their visual appeal in marketing and promotional activities rather than for their functionality. Honda, Sony, Toyota and other leading brands have produced such androids in limited numbers, but no mass market has opened up for these products, which are characterised by high development and production costs and the lack of artificial intelligence systems that will make them more autonomous. The only volume sales are in the toy sector, where significant market potential is now developing as prices come down.

Lego Mindstorms Alpha Rex robot
Lego Mindstorms Alpha Rex robot

The three Ds: dull, dirty and dangerous

Robots are well-suited to repetitive work that is boring for humans and for tasks that take place in adverse environments. Robots have been widely deployed for bomb disposal and surveillance work in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are now regularly used after natural and man-made disasters to locate and bring assistance to the trapped and injured.

It is important, however, to remember that robots do not just replace low-grade workplace skills, or that their capabilities are limited to non-creative routine work.

Increasing consumer expectations mean that many products - cars are a notable example - must be manufactured to much higher quality standards and at levels of productivity that human workers cannot achieve consistently. Nowadays, such products are being designed from the outset with robotics as a key manufacturing consideration.

Robots are very attractive employees. They never get sick or tired, work around the clock with no need for meal or smoke breaks, never ask for pay or benefits, never join unions or go on strike, and can be retrained and given new skills simply by changing their programming and making mechanical adjustments. Robots never have their performance compromised and the quality of their output adversely affected by human weaknesses and emotions.

In an international context, robots can be moved around the world without such complications as work visas and other immigration requirements. When exchange rates, markets, tariffs and other cost factors change, a robotic workforce can be crated up and moved to a different country or region without having to pay out redundancy packages or cover long-term obligations for pensions and healthcare. The motor industry is even considering robotic assembly lines in self-contained plants mounted on giant barges which can be towed anywhere.

Honda ASIMO robot descending stairs
Honda ASIMO robot descending stairs

Of course, this steady replacement of human workers by robots creates many social problems and it is one aspect of globalisation that has not received sufficient attention.

While Mary Shelley's Frankenstein started the notion, perpetuated since in many works of fiction, that robotics can create monsters that threaten human beings, in some respects this is coming true. Even industrial robots with no inherent offensive capabilities have to be enclosed in strong barriers in case they malfunction, or just fall over, and risk injuring human workers. It is becoming an essential principle in the ethics of robotics to build in safety features, including fail-safe routines.





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