Episode 4: Robots and Drones

The new roles of robotics

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Adam's Weekly Blog

Robot blog

Robot blog

We have been dreaming of robots for millennia. The ancient Greek god...
We have been dreaming of robots for millennia. The ancient Greek god Hephaestus, known as Vulcan by the Romans, was said to have built metal robots to work for him that walked to and from Mount Olympus.

In more modern times robots have not just filled our imaginations but our screens. The 1920s film Metropolis probably started our big screen robot obsession with a vision of a kind of humanoid robot that has survived to be re-incarnated as Will Smith’s I, Robot, Ted Hughes The Iron Man and of course C3PO in Star Wars.

But the very clear view we have of what robots should look like and what they should do, can ironically blind us to what they actually are doing in the real world beyond the screens of the local multiplex.

Making robots that look like humans is actually a real pain. Not only is it difficult, it also misses the point. One of the reasons we want robots, is to do things we cannot. Why therefore should anyone build a robot that is limited by its size and build, to the same physical restraints that we are? Far better to re-imagine a creature from scratch.

There are two constraints on the robotic world: technology and imagination. Sometimes it is the imagination that is the biggest problem.

Last year I attended a meeting in California. In the middle of the morning sun, I walked round the office, went to a conference room and first listened in to a conversation and then interrupted it to take part and share my thoughts. But I did it all whilst simultaneously looking out at a rain soaked London from my study window.

The reason why I could be in two places at once was that I had sent a robot to California which I was controlling via my computer. In the robots head was a TV screen linked to my PC camera so the real people could see my face and I could see them through the camera eyes of the robot. I did have some issues with continually driving the robot into the chair of the other participants of the meeting but otherwise I managed to be in two places at once, although I still have not worked out how to charge double time for my work.

Technologically this was a success. But for me, this kind of robot was a bit of a failure. It was trying to mimic as closely as possible the human experience of being somewhere. The real people in California had a “real” Adam they could look at who was walking around the room. But in truth I don’t think a robotic presence is a good as really being there to size-up the other participants and for them to size me up.

This was really Skype on steroids and although technologically it worked, it failed to make the imaginative leap to see how best to use the technology.

This year I actually went to South Africa to see a very different kind of robot.

Johannesburg is home to the world’s deepest mine. It plunges over four kilometres (2.4 miles) down in to the earth’s core. I went to see how robots are making working underground in conditions like that, much safer.

Declan Vogt is an electronics engineer at The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research or CSIR, one of the leading scientific and technology research, development and implementation organisations in Africa. He is attempting to bring mining out of the dark ages.

Miners are highly exposed to danger. It is a very hostile environment, it is deep and the pressure that the rock is under is quite high, which means that you get rock bursts and rock falls. Last year roughly 120 people died across South Africa.

They are trying to use robots to inspect freshly created mine cavities to make sure they are safe. I am told that at the moment a miner has to do this by going into the mine and tapping the roof to see what sound it makes. If it makes the wrong kind of sound, it suggests the roof might fall in and so they get out quickly.

It all sounds crazy and so inventing a robot who can do that, sounds a good idea.

Ruan De Hart at the introduced me to what he calls The Monster Robot.

In a hanger, Ruan and his team have built a model mine.

I crawl in it, there is just room for me to crawl on my hands and knees. As I make my painful way forward I am quickly overtaken by The Monster Robot which is not only faster than me but has thermal imaging cameras.

It then maps and colour codes the mine shaft according to potential danger using its 3D and thermal imaging.

It could hugely increase the efficacy of a mining industry that desperately needs to keep up with the times.

What I liked about The Monster is that not only does the technology look good but the imagination behind it did not lead them to create a metal human but something much better suited to the job.

The only drawback is that despite its name, it does not look quite the part for a big Hollywood movie – so fame and stardom may still be someway off for this particular robot.
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