Amazing Robotics

I recently attended a presentation on emerging technologies.  One of the more fascinating topics was robotics.  Robotics may prompt different thoughts in different people, from toy robots that entertain children, through large robotic arms that assemble automobiles in a choreographed industrial dance routine, to robotic surgery.

Robots are not new.  Around the year 1200, inventor Al-Jazari constructed a robotic music band, with four musicians, complete with facial and body actions and multiple musical selections.  Robotics evolved slowly over time, until the present day with robots quickly becoming a bigger part of our lives, in ways you may not expect.

The concept of mobile robotics is especially interesting.  Mobile robots can move around in the air, on land, or in or under water.  We can operate them manually (as simple as the child’s remote control car) or the mobile robots can follow a line on the ceiling or floor.  The more sophisticated mobile robots can sense where to go (think the advertised ‘Roomba’ carpet vacuum cleaner).  The more capable mobile robots use preprogrammed data and maps, along with a schedule (think hospital robots).

I had the opportunity to watch a demonstration of the Anybot – what I will call a ‘personal representative.’  The Anybot is a manually operated mobile robot with a speaker, microphone, camera, and video screen.  You can drive the Anybot remotely from your laptop’s web browser.  You can be home and view activity in your office or warehouse as well as talk to employees and visitors.  You can see and be seen!  Anybot was very cool!

Mobile robots can also save lives and help the disabled.  Mobile robots can take the place of people in hostile environments, such as war zones or where hazardous materials may be present.  The disabled could benefit greatly from mobile robots that take the form of ‘exoskeletons’ or other walking aids.

An exoskeleton is a wearable mobile robot.  Although first developed in the 1960s, the exoskeleton is still not ready for prime time until weight and control functions are improved.  But the exoskeleton has great potential for helping nurses lift patients, especially the elderly and stroke victims.

Robotic walking aids can also help the disabled walk and maintain some independence.  Some robotic walking aids can climb stairs.  With mobile robots, more elderly would be able to stay in their own homes instead of having to go to nursing facilities.

All this activity with robotics has spurred an increase in training in robotics.  Science fairs from elementary through high schools have featured robotics.  Award-winners get to show their projects to the President at the White House.  The Washington Post recently featured an article on the University of Maryland’s Engineering’s Space Systems Laboratory and the work the students are doing with mobile assistance for astronauts.  Since more robotics will require more mechanical and electrical engineers, as well as lots of software design, Carnegie Mellon is now accepting applications for its Masters in Robotic Systems Development.  I was surprised to see that Microsoft even has robotics developer software.  Who knew?

I look forward to seeing how robotics can continue to make our lives safer and better.  Do you have any robots in your world? What has been the impact?