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The industrial robot revolution

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

Another mission: Surveillance runs. AUVs are capable of gathering gigabytes or more of critical data through sonar images, camera stills and other high-tech components. Data snippets and alerts can either be transmitted in real time over low-bandwidth acoustic modems, periodically from surface-to-satellite connections, or downloaded in full over high-speed links upon the AUV's return.

Unlike their brethren, predator drones and unmanned tanks, Taylor says AUVs won't be used in military engagements. "The robotic AUVs won't replace weapons such as torpedoes because they can't yet react to the environment. They're autonomous, but not intelligent," Taylor says.

Like Allen, she believes that projects like those she is working on are possible today because of the reduction in robotics costs.

Companies like Heartland Robotics and iRobot (maker of the infamous Roomba automated vacuum) continue their quest to commoditize robots by making them less expensive. Heartland Robotics, for instance, wants to offer a robotic manufacturing assistant for $15,000, according to Tobe. "Most businesses are smaller and if they can maximize the workforce they have by adding in robots, why not? It's a way to stay competitive," he says.

Microsoft also is focused on cost, aiming to get robotics operating systems to a broad community at an affordable price. The company recently released the fourth version of its Robotics Developer Studio platform. The goal for Microsoft, according to Robotics' Team Leader Stathis Papaefstathiou, is to create a comprehensive robotics platform that integrates with Microsoft Kinect camera and depth sensor, which is currently found in the Xbox 360, and the Windows Azure cloud service, which could be used to support large computations.

"Although there are a lot of developers writing robotics applications, they are not experts in that domain. So we want to provide the robotics development infrastructure that they will need," he says. For instance, some devices will have real-time operations and basic operations take place on the robot itself. However, if more sophisticated analysis is required, such as assessing visuals from the camera, cloud services could offer an assist.

Roger Arrick, owner of mobile robot maker Arrick Robotics, contends price will be a determining factor in the overall success of robotics. "Robotics will have the most impact where it makes the most financial sense," he says. He points to manufacturing and the military, both of which have high labor costs and liability. "Ultimately, we might see wars fought robots against robots. Already there are the beginnings of this with drones and remotely operated tanks," he says.

The battery barrier

There is one element, though, that still plagues the robotics field: batteries. Arrick says a high-energy density, low-weight, non-toxic battery with a fast charge time would constitute a major breakthrough. "This would change the world of robotics very quickly because current battery technology is very heavy and this has a chain-reaction effect upon design," he says. Updated batteries would result in lighter exoskeletons, longer lives for technology such as planetary rovers, and more air vehicles, he adds.


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