Robotics and the future

As AI machines take on traditional human roles, they will change job assignments everywhere—including aviation and space.

By Marvin Cetron
Pres, Forecasting Intl

Honda's $1-million Asimo is the most "human" robot yet made. In daily demonstrations at the HondaJet booth during the recent NBAA convention, Asimo walked, negotiated stairs, kicked a soccer ball and even balanced on one leg.





Question: What do the following have in common? (Yes, this has to do with aviation.)
• Racing 8000 miles from Italy to China
• Vacuuming a house
• Flying small airplanes halfway around the world
• Installing solar panels on the Intl Space Station
• Performing surgery halfway around the world
• Assembling and painting cars without human intervention
• Capping an oil well over 1 mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico
• Taking samples on Mars
• Checking for bombs inside a building
• Checking inside a house under siege
• Defusing a bomb
• Entering a mine to check its environment and integrity
• Teaching dance

Answer: These tasks all are being carried out, at least experimentally, by robots. Many more such tasks will enter the robots' repertoire in years ahead. In our personal lives, robots will soon mow the lawn, fold the laundry and maybe even straighten out that mess in the garage. Younger pilots who will not retire until 2030 or so are likely some day to find robots bringing them their medication and helping them in and out of bed or a wheelchair. And in the cockpit—well, let's save that for later.

Technically, robots are just mechanical devices that carry out their tasks without human intervention. Roomba vacuum cleaners, the automated welders and painters on vehicle assembly lines, and space probes such as NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander and the 2 Mars Rovers—Spirit and Opportunity—all qualify as robots.

Lately, the term has come to be used even for machines steered at a distance by human operators. Predator drones, iRobot's PackBot multimission robots used in Iraq and Afghanistan, FlangeBot wireless inspection robots built by Remote Ocean Systems (ROS) of San Diego CA and used inside reactor pressure vessels, and Sandia Laboratories' RATLER mine inspection robot all fit into this category.

But the most sophisticated robots are the ones that can react to their environment and get the job done. Think of the autonomous cars that raced for DARPA's Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge prizes between 2004 and 2007. Stanford University's Stanley won the $2-million prize in 2005 by navigating its way through a hazardous desert course with 3 narrow tunnels and more than 100 sharp turns.

The Urban Challenge 2 years later was even more complex, as the robot cars had to merge into oncoming traffic and obey all traffic regulations while completing the 60-mile course in less than 6 hrs. No fewer than 6 vehicles managed to finish the Urban Challenge, 3 of them in well under 5 hrs.

"This technology has the potential to change aviation in profound ways," comments Pro Pilot Publisher Mur­ray Smith. "Some of them will make our lives as pilots easier and safer. Others may not be quite so welcome."

Aerial pioneers

Justin is controlled by a human operator, who sees and feels everything the robot does. Special versions may be tailored for hazardous jobs like repairing spacecraft or deep sea oil wells.

In aviation, robots go back a long way. An argument can be made that the world's first practical robot—the first mechanical device capable of getting its job done without human help, even while responding to a changing environment—was a Curtiss C2 flying boat demonstrated by Lawrence Sperry at the Concours de la Sécurité en Aéroplane held in Paris in 1914. It was the first public unveiling of the autopilot he had developed 2 years earlier.

It was a spectacular display. On his first pass down the Seine, Sperry took his hands off the stick and held them in the air, in plain sight of the reviewing stand, and flew on under perfect control. On his second, the plane dipped its right wing for a moment as mechanic Emil Cachin left the cockpit and walked about 7 ft out on the right wing. Then it righted itself and flew on. On the third and final pass, Sperry himself walked out on the left wing, and the biplane flew along safely with no one at all inside.

Commandant Joseph Barrès of the French Army Air Corps was so impressed that he cadged a ride with the young American aviator and watched as the not-so-primitive autopilot performed the takeoff and landing without human assistance.

The next day, Sperry's face was on the front pages of newspapers in London, Paris and Berlin. Although the enormous gyroscopes invented by Lawrence's father, Elmer Sperry, were already helping to navigate more than 30 US warships in 1914, it would be the early 1920s before a Standard Oil tanker called the J A Moffet brought autopilots down to the 2-dimensional world of the sea.

Around the robotic world

These days, robot development is one of the busiest areas of high-tech R&D. At major universities and corporations around the world, research teams are laboring to give robots better vision, more dexterous hands, and the ability to walk on 2 legs, like their human masters. Each advance will enable them to take on more of the jobs that today employ human workers, but they will also make it possible to take on tasks too dangerous for people or where humans are unavailable.

A case in point is the disastrous explosion at BP's Transocean Deepwater Horizon oil rig some 130 miles southeast of New Orleans LA. No human could dive roughly a mile to halt the tens of thousands of gallons of oil per day spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. It was a job for one of the remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) the oil and gas industry has been using for more than 30 years.

A typical example is the Millennium Plus—a 330-hp ROV controlled from the surface by fiber optic cable. Built by Oceaneering Intl in Houston TX, the 8800-lb vehicle is shaped rather like a cement block. It can carry 900 lb of payload up to 10,000 ft beneath the surface. Using 2 robot arms at one end of the vehicle, operators on the tender ship can replace gaskets, chop through steel pipe up to 8 in across, or attempt to close the valves on the damaged blowout preventer at BP's damaged well.


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