A world where robots and humans exist side- by- side may not be too far in the future, according to university researchers. They have been designing robots for duties that range from simple household tasks to inspecting underwater machinery in the wake of disasters like the Gulf Oil Spill.
Researchers showcased these robots at the annual Maryland Robotics Day on Friday, marking a small step on the road to building technologies they say may be as influential as the computer revolution.
“Ten years ago, we couldn’t even imagine we’d have gadgets like the iPhone — robots represent that same kind of transition,” mechanical engineering professor Nikhil Chopra said.
Robots cover a wide array of industries and purposes, allowing researchers from across the spectrum to interact with each other and learn about domains they may not have considered, Maryland Robotics Center External Relations Director Jeff Coriale said.
Chopra’s miniature robot named “Now” can teach elementary-aged students about robots and programming by allowing students to control it using a sensor camera. They can even watch the robot kick balls and score goals.
Some robots help out in the kitchen by slicing bread and pouring water, like the one computer studies scientist Cornelia Fermuller designed.
A smaller, more complex robot under the direction of physics professor Wolfgang Losert can effectively manipulate groups of cells, placing the tools of biomedical research in the hands of small robotic tweezers.
While researchers were able to show off and operate their robots with apparent ease, creating them is no simple task. It all starts on the drawing table as researchers strip the robot’s purpose down to its bare skeleton and program the system using algorithms, a process that takes three to four years on average.
“We program them. We design them. We teach them – it’s really like my child – it learns from the language of programming,” Chopra said.
But the robots must be taught how to respond in every possible environment, making it difficult for them to respond to dynamic, sudden and unexpected changes.
“Humans read and write without even thinking – it’s a fascinating process when you try and replicate it with a robot. They are only good at repetitive things,” Chopra said, adding that working with robots has made him more appreciative of human capabilities.
Even the slightest change to lighting and the number of people on a table can affect a robot’s capabilities, Fermuller said, requiring an investment of computing power that often is not available.
“Robots today are used in manufacturing and stocking warehouses because their surroundings are controlled and predictable, but place them outside and we have a different story,” said Eric Kim, an undergraduate researcher and senior electrical engineering major.
Overcoming this challenge of constrained environments may be possible in the next decade as researchers explore new algorithms and statistical methods.
And with better motors, sensors and materials, robot-to-robot and human-to-robot collaboration may increase as well.
“If one robot has the ability to rapidly search an area for earthquake survivors while another can lift rubble, it makes sense for them to cooperate,” Kim said.
These robots can be used in hospitals, mines, at home to deliver medication to the elderly, or on space walks where an astronaut can direct a robot to fulfill a particular task, Chopra said.
“For many of us, this isn’t idealistic – they’ll be sharing our offices and they may sit in for our meetings when we are not there,” he said.
But this vision isn’t like the Hollywood world of I, Robot.
“In a sense, the cruise control on a high-end car that keeps you from drifting in your lane makes that car a robot,” Kim said, challenging traditional perceptions of robots.
At the end of the day, the allure of these wired creatures is about one thing: research.
“Our purpose is to increase enthusiasm for research and engineering,” Chopra said.