Robots are a fun topic. They tease our imagination to wander into the realm of possibilities. Especially when we create film robots with personalities like R2D2, I Robot and the many strange variations of Artificial Intelligence.
And we begin to push the envelope again as to what mechatronics properly consists of. Consider the “loader” in Aliens when Sigourney Weaver starts fighting with the Queen alien. This hydraulic system, once called a “man amplifier” was designed to facilitate moving high loads easily with human dexterity and control. A number of experimental “exoskeleton” systems are currently under test in the military to help soldiers carry higher loads of equipment in combat situations. Some of these systems are air powered with sophisticated sensors to provide feedback to the user.
Robot challenges have become popular all over the world for High School and College students to compete in “battle” or structured competitions. Students can design using any technical platform and engage experienced mentors to help them with the formidable learning curve of robot design. Sure, if you have an expert for each discipline it would be pretty easy, motors, amplifiers, motor feedback, gear reduction, mechanics and kinematics, control systems, sensors and transducers, power storage and charging, it gets pretty complicated.
Then there’s the intelligence question. What is intelligence? Can we program it? This is a little more difficult to separate out. Many systems exhibit some of the attributes of intelligence because they are able to adapt to their surroundings. As those who have participated in the recent DARPA funded Autonomous Vehicle challenge, navigation and proximity issues can be programmed, but real long distance travel is not easily rendered into programming. To what extent can we program a system to learn from experience? And what will it be able to do once it has? The limits to software are constantly being expanded.
Over the last thirty years progress have been made on many fronts. Practical robot welding systems are available at $55K price range that many manufacturers are able to afford. And they do everything expected of them in terms of productivity, consistency and speed. Million dollar Surgical robots now exceed the performance of skilled orthopedic surgeons.
I think its an exciting time in our industry in terms of what is possible. Economies of scale, while sometimes slow, are impacting all aspects of mechatronics. I hope the students coming into the field will be able to apply their skills in solving problems and really use their creativity. On the Big issues and the small.