Robotics and the future

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

Oceaneering Intl's blocky Millennium Plus is designed for oil well and pipeline maintenance at depths up to 10,000 ft.

Yet workplace ROVs are just the most prosaic side of modern robotics. Here is a look at some of the wonders that lie ahead:

This July, 2 heavily modified Piaggio Porter Electric vans took off on an epic journey from Italy to China by way of Siberia and the Gobi Desert. Developed by researchers at the VisLab at the University of Parma, Italy, they began their journey in front of Milan Cathedral. They ended it successfully in Shanghai on Oct 28.

The vans are not fully robotic, as each carries technicians who will take control every time a decision on the road has to be taken. Yet the cars will navigate themselves by GPS, and cameras, laser scanners and some very bright software will help them to avoid running into unwary cars, pedestrians and other obstacles.

VisLab director Alberto Broggi says the long journey will subject the semirobotic vehicles to conditions even more demanding than those of the DARPA Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge. No one expects the vans to make the trip without human help—but that is the point. By finding out where the autonomous driving technology breaks down, the engineers will learn what they need to improve in order to build a truly independent vehicle.

The VisLab experiment is just one of many. General Motors has already announced that it plans to market "driver-optional" cars by 2020.

Aeros (for airborne robotic oil spill recovery system) is a robot the size of a minivan that can be dropped from an airplane to clean up an ocean oil spill. Inflatable booms extended from a floating platform trap oil floating on the surface and guide it to a centrifugal separator that can spin the oil out of up to 3000 gallons of sea water per minute.

Boston Dynamics' Big Dog, a DARPA project meant to help soldiers lug their equipment, can run at 4 mph with loads of up to 340 lbs.

Global Aero Response Group, which developed the device, is negotiating with Beijing to build an $800-million base to clean up future spills in Chinese waters.

Space engineers have suggested using robot arms like the one carried by the Space Shuttle to grab orbiting debris and toss it Earthward, to burn up in the atmosphere.
Justin is a humanoid robot developed at the Institute of Robotics & Mechatronics at the German Aerospace Center in Wessling.

Justin comes in different versions. One has wheels. Another, legless but with its head and arms intact, is designed to be mounted on a satellite or spacecraft. Researchers hope that it will eventually be able to go where no man is likely to and carry out repairs or refueling operations on command.

For now, Justin's arms mimic the movements of a distant human wearing a control exoskeleton. The system relays feedback data to the operator, who can see in 3D what the robot sees and feel the forces Justin experiences. Earthbound uses for the technology are likely to include inspection and repair at remote and dangerous locations, such as a deep-sea oil well or the core of a nuclear reactor.

Boston Dynamics, under contract to DARPA, is developing a series of "legged squad support systems" for the military. The 4-legged, 240-lb Big Dog is the size of a large mastiff. It can run at 4 mph, carrying up to 340 lb of cargo nearly 13 miles without stopping or refueling. The follow-on LS3 is planned to lug 400 lb of gear up to 20 miles on a 24-hr mission, using GPS, computer vision, and other sensors either to follow a leader or reach assigned destinations on its own.

Around the world, dozens of groups are working on robots to help the elderly and disabled live relatively normal lives in anticipation of the growing shortage of human aides as the vast baby boom generation grows old.

Two-foot tall Taizo, from Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science & Technology, looks a lot like the Pillsbury Doughboy. With 26 joints, he is uncommonly flexible. That helps with his assigned job—he is a personal trainer, capable of guiding older students through 30 different exercises designed to maintain their strength and mobility.
RIBA, developed at the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, in Japan, has been described as "a forklift for humans."

He is designed to lift and carry those who are too weak to stand, walk or sit on their own. Currently limited to loads of 135 lb, he should be capable of carrying larger burdens by the time he enters tests in several Japanese nursing homes next year.
Kompaï, from Robosoft, in France, is an armless, mobile "personal assistant" operated by touch screen or spoken orders. Thus far, he is limited to chores such as making phone calls, sending e-mail, recording grocery lists and reminding users to take their medicine on schedule.

Taizo, just 2 ft tall but extremely flexible, is a personal trainer robot designed to lead the elderly through exercises to maintain their strength and flexibility.

Raven 2, developed by researchers at the University of Washington and UC Santa Cruz, is not a household robot, but a 4-armed robot surgeon. Two human surgeons separated by thousands of miles will be able to work through it at the same time, carrying out complex operations on patients at a third location distant from either. In a neat advance, Raven 2's software is smart enough to keep the surgical instruments from colliding in the tight confines of a patient's body. Coming soon to an operating theater probably a long way from you.

HERB (for Home-Exploring Robot Butler), under development at Carnegie Mellon University, can fetch objects, balance a tray or hold your chair steady. For ultimate mobility, HERB is built onto the base of a Segway. Unlike the other healthcare robots mentioned here, all of which soon will see human patients, HERB—or one of his distant descendents—is not expected to reach practical use until 2025.

Many other robotics specialists are working on the classic robots of science fiction—electromechanical humanoids capable of walking on 2 legs. Just why this goal is so important is not always clear. It's a complicated chore that requires combining state-of-the-art intelligence with precise dynamic controls, flexibility and a host of other extreme challenges. Yet, in talking to roboticists it quickly becomes clear that something else is at work.

A humanoid robot is a kind of Holy Grail largely because generations of science fiction have made it so. For many, it is what got them interested in robots in the first place.
"Humanoid robots are essential if we are ever to treat them as members of our households, friends or companies," says forecaster Ian Pearson of Futurizon, in Buttikon, Switzerland. "I don't think people can make a full emotional attachment otherwise. It is much harder to identify with R2D2 than C3PO."

Japan and South Korea lead the world in the development of humanoid robots, with the US in a distant third place—at best. The breakthrough came in 1986, when Honda's now-familiar 4 ft 3 in Asimo first walked gracefully for the world's news cameras. Now in its 12th generation, the $1-million robots still probably come closest to duplicating human movements. Aided by microphones and a camera mounted in its head, Asimo can recognize and greet people it knows, avoid obstacles and shake hands.


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