Sci-fi stories often inspire actual scientific research and achievements. Stories of aliens and spacemen exploring the universe can make a big impression on astronauts and space researchers. But when it comes to robots, Europe's scientists aren't seeking their muse in popular culture; they look at the problems we face today and the challenges of the future, then try to build smart and intelligent technologies to combat these difficulties.
We frequently see multifunctional humanoid robots like C-3PO and the Terminator in movies and on TV, but a walk through a typical robotics laboratory would rarely reveal anything even remotely human-looking. Instead, most robots are specialist machines that excel in a small number of specific tasks. Today's robots may have wheels, worm-like structures or other biologically inspired shapes.
European robotics research is looking at three areas: perception, understanding and action. Perception projects are looking at how and what robots can sense in their environment. Research on understanding is discovering new ways for robots to make calculations, inferences and learn to find solutions to the tasks and problems they face. Finally, there is action - how robots respond to the world around them and perform their instructed tasks efficiently and safely.
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In some areas, such as manufacturing, the development and application of robots is already well advanced. Without robots, many industry sectors would be under considerable financial pressure in many higher-wage countries. Indeed, sectors including microelectronics, agro-food and automotive, which make up more than 20 % of the EU's GDP and employ 25 % of the workforce, could have disappeared entirely were it not for automated labourers.
Robots can even create employment. A recent study (1) has also estimated that a million robots currently being used for industrial purposes have resulted in the development of almost three million jobs worldwide: from jobs created in the robotics industry itself, to employment in new manufacturing sectors enabled by industrial robots, as well as growth in the related distribution and service industries.
Research is now underway to bridge the gap between the industrial use of robots and their performance in less controlled environments such as in the home. The DEXMART (2) project is working on this very issue, developing robots that can interact safely with humans and handle objects with skill. The project team are developing a two-armed robot which can adapt to sudden and unpredictable changes in its environment, for example to avoid bumping into people who walk in its way.
Other researchers are looking at the manipulative skills of robots and how to increase their dexterity so they can increase the number and complexity of tasks they perform. The Hand Embodied (3) project is studying how the very nature and structure of the human hand affects the way that we learn to control and use it. The idea is to couple feedback with learning so that future robotic hands can quickly master new manipulative abilities.
Of course, humans use their hands all the time in incredibly controlled and skilled way. But robots could still improve our accuracy in delicate, high precision tasks such as surgery. Currently, automation is not used in the operating room for a number of technical and legal reasons, not least because life-and-death decisions on incisions cannot be left to the artificial intelligence. The I-SUR (4) project, however, is developing advanced technologies that will enable more automation and robotic solutions, initially for minor surgical tasks like puncturing, cutting and suturing.
In all these projects the researchers hope to develop robots that can replace or assist people with daily challenges and tasks. But there are many other important activities that humans simply cannot do. Creating machines to extend our capabilities is another important aspect of European research.
Robots with the ability to fly are an obvious example, and there is a large volume of research work going on in this area. The AIROBOTS (5) team, for example, is building aerial service robots. They can carry out remote inspections, for example, or support humans in a variety of situations. The robots will be able to move around freely above ground and interact safely in environments that humans could not hope to reach. Where environments are dangerous, inaccessible or perhaps particularly fragile, the robots will be able to interact non-destructively, hovering close to areas of interest and carrying out various operations, all controlled by the operator.
For advanced aerial surveillance, the SFLY (6) project is developing a swarm of micro-flying robots that coordinate their movements to view and map an area from above. The miniature helicopters will act autonomously and carry monitoring and surveillance equipment. They will also have the ability to work out where they are in 3D space without using GPS technology. The helicopters are designed with safety in mind; they weight only 500g and have the ability to coordinate their flight in small swarms, even in enclosed spaces. The SFLY bots could be used for search and rescue, environmental monitoring, security surveillance, inspection and law enforcement.
Swarming behaviours are particularly attractive for robots, because swarms of simple machines can have synergistic benefits and carry out tasks that would be impossible with a single agent. Coordinated groups can provide advanced sensing capabilities and work efficiently in dangerous and challenging environments.
The SHOAL (7) project is developing robotic fish which move by mimicking the swimming action of real fish. These robotic fish are being developed to monitor aquatic environments and look for pollutants in water, for example to detect leaks in ports. The fish move in a coordinated shoal, to analyse contaminants and produce real-time maps of pollutant concentrations in a 3D schematic of the port.
The underwater environment is particularly challenging for humans, so a perfect opportunity for robots to demonstrate their worth. Researchers in the TRIDENT (8) project recognise that underwater robots could be used for a wide variety of jobs, but it is costly to develop specialist machines for every task. So they are finding ways to create multi-purpose robots which could be employed for tasks as diverse as underwater archaeology, oceanography and offshore industries. The TRIDENT system will involve an autonomous surface craft which is linked to an underwater submersible with a robotic arm.
Whether we see swarms in the sky or find ourselves talking to a humanoid home helper, robotics are no longer limited to repetitive manufacturing monotony. European research is showing that robotics can provide highly practical solutions to today's problems.
The projects featured in this article have been supported by the Competitive and Innovation Programme's (CIP) ICT-Policy Support scheme or the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for research.
(1) 'Positive Impact of Industrial Robots on Employment' by Metra Martech November 2011
(2) 'Dexterous and autonomous dual-arm/hand robotic manipulation with smart sensory-motor skills: A bridge from natural to artificial cognition'
(3) 'The Hand Embodied'
(4) 'Intelligent Surgical Robots'
(5) 'Innovative aerial service robots for remote inspections by contact'
(6) 'Swarm of micro flying robots'
(7) 'Search and monitoring of Harmful contaminants, other pollutants and leaks in vessels in port using a swarm of robotic fish'
(8) 'Marine robots and dexterous manipulation for enabling autonomous underwater multipurpose intervention missions'