Robots seem to be in the news regularly these days. There are now many types of robotic items that help make our lives easier, from the vacuum and floor sweeper/washer, to the lawn mower and the gutter cleaner. While Japan is a lot closer to putting a Rosie the maid (The Jetsons housekeeper) in every household, the United States is still a number of years out before robots become the newest, got-to-have non-human member of the family.
There are currently dog robots, volcano-exploring robots, robots that disable bombs, and robots that perform surgery. The robot rovers Spirit and Opportunity have endeared themselves to many by their videos and photos of Mars, including a recent “selfie” by Opportunity showing its shadow on a Martian slope. Last September, Kirobo, a Japanese space robot sent text messages back to Earth from its space adventure to the delight of many. While robotics development has been continually expanding to all facets of life, the majority of development seems to be in the medical, industrial and military arenas.
In the U.S., the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is one of the major instigators of robotic development. Continually pushing the robotic envelope to develop new uses and abilities, DARPA hosts regular competitions including the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC). From DARPA collaborative studies, competitions and funded projects with various universities, there have been new, adaptive, and futuristic robotic successes.
The Phoenix project has been working on creating robotic technicians that can service, repair and upgrade satellites, a multitude of which are deployed every year into the Earth’s orbit. This is critically important as the cost of satellites and the complexity in their maintenance is high. From the DARPA Virtual Robotics Challenge, a six-foot two, 330-pound robot appropriately named Atlas was created. Atlas has the ability to be programmed and successfully perform disaster response related tasks.
There are increases every day of the types of robotic assistive devices now available for individual use. The DARPA DEKA Arm System is a revolutionary prosthetic program, which includes advanced electro-mechanical controls allowing the user to have a better quality of life and greater independence. The Japanese company Cyberdyne has created HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) which is worn like stirrups around the waist and down both legs, and can be used for rehabilitation, physical training, extended hard labor or disaster and rescue work.
The Emotiv EPOC is a neuro-headset that allows the user to interact and communicate to convey feelings and emotions. The EPOC also can be used to control wheelchairs, play hands-free games or use mind-keyboards. Robots are seeing elderly and ill patients where they check vital medical information and visit isolated or lonely individuals. While these uses of robots do not rise to the level of a family member, they can become a critical part of a family member’s life.
The military uses for robots seem limitless. The Legged Squad Support System (LS3) was developed by DARPA to be embedded with a marine squadron to carry up to 400 pounds of gear, navigate all terrains and provide an auxiliary power source to all soldiers. The LS3 is programmable, capable of voice recognition and can execute commands. Drones (unmanned robotic land, sea or air vehicles) can be autonomous or dependent. There are drone tele-robots that are programmed and remotely controlled and operated, while other drones are programmed to independently perform a series of tasks such as flying over a specific geographical area taking photographs or delivering packages.
There are also numerous industrial uses for robots. The EU project, VALERI (Validation of Advanced Collaborative Robotics for Industrial Applications), is creating an autonomous mobile robot that independently works with engineers and technicians in aerospace manufacturing and production. These robots will be able to perform repetitive or dangerous tasks such as the application of sealant along the entire plane fuselage to prevent corrosion.
What is clear is that robots have tremendous appeal and applicability across all spectrum’s of our existence. While not all homes will have robot members as part of the family anytime soon, robots are becoming a part of our medical and health community, our military and defense complex and strategy, companions for the disabled and elderly, housekeeping staff, and service and industrial workers.
To anyone who is future oriented and can think of all the advantages and improvements that robots can bring into our lives, the future is exciting. If visions of robots run amok, robot domination or robots controlling our existence spring into mind, then the future might be less than desirable and possibly frightening.
By Brendie Kelly