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The industrial robot revolution

Sandra Gittlen | Feb. 21, 2012
One small step for man, a giant leap for robot-kind.

Sensors and sensibility

In the past, the field of robotics was constrained by a pre-conceived notion of a specific form factor and function. defines robotics as "any machine or mechanical device that operates automatically with humanlike skill."

In reality, robots are created to surpass humans in their abilities. Advanced robots have sensors, intelligence and can act with autonomy. For instance, Swoop Technology is developing embedded robotics to automatically keep vehicles, such as buses, within their lanes.

Carnegie Mellon University is studying the use of robots in tree and plant nurseries to automatically move containers around based on their optimal environments. 

Robots also are being tapped to improve medicine and, more specifically, surgeries. Peter Allen, professor of computer science at Columbia University in New York, is developing robotics to improve minimally invasive surgeries. The miniaturization of essential components such as cameras and motors, sophistication of the software, and decrease in price make robotics attractive for single-port surgeries.

"You're soon going to see a whole class of small, disposable, inexpensive systems that will do simple surgeries such as gall bladder and kidney removal, and hysterectomies," Allen says. "The main impact will be fewer incisions and, therefore, less overall trauma to the patient." The camera-laden robots also increase visibility within the surgical area.

Already Allen has licensed a robotic device he co-created with a physician that, according to Columbia University, "pans, tilts, and zooms to generate 2-D or 3-D images, and tracks surgical instruments automatically."

He expects robotic technology to become an integral part of medical school curricula within the next five years.

Allen foresees robotics reducing the number of staff needed at each surgery and alleviating the overall strain on surgeons. "While it's doubtful that you'll ever take the tools completely out of a surgeon's control - you want humans in the loop in case of an error - surgeons can form a partnership with the technology," he says.

The Robot Report's Tobe agrees, noting university research, including studies at Stanford University, on operating rooms of the future. Some are testing replacement of scrub nurses, anesthesiologists and other ancillary players with robots while surgeons navigate robotic arms by virtually mimicking gestures.

Like many of his idols and peers, Tobe is convinced that the collision of biotechnology, nanotechnology and robotics is bound to be life-changing.

Deep dive

At Boston-based Bluefin Robotics, System Engineer Mikell Taylor is singularly focused on pairing robotics with autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) for enhanced surveillance at sea and in port.

The AUVs, being developed for defense, commercial and scientific applications, are intended to obviate the need for divers and dolphins to survey the risk of potential areas. For instance, AUVs equipped with robotics can ferret out unexploded mines in the middle of the ocean so a charge can be dropped to neutralize them. Also, AUVs can circle ships near dock, investigating their hulls and detecting danger. If there is potential for harm, officials can keep them away from shore.


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