If you were a teenager in 1977 and went to see Star Wars the first vision of C3PO and R2D2 would have made quite an impact. In the 39 years since the first Star Wars movie, film makers have inspired a generation of robotics engineers with some amazing and imaginative concepts of what robots could do.
Robots have been in our imagination for nearly a century, from the time of “Rossum’s Universal Robots” in the 1920’s to Asimov’s “I Robot” and beyond. Since harnessing animals in ancient times, man has sought something to take his place in repetitive and menial forms of work. With the advent of the current generation of “collaborative robots” mechatronics engineers have taken a step closer to achieving this goal.
As our movie effects have improved, the vision of robots has changed and become more sophisticated. Robots are imagined that see, hear, feel, touch and interact intelligently, and sometimes possess unique attributes superior to humans. From the extraordinary robots in the Will Smith film version of “I Robot”, presumably powered by elastomer ‘muscles’, to the helper robots in “Interstellar”, there are a wide range of concepts for autonomous robots.
In the real world it is far different. Programming a robot arm to move is fairly complex, but it is something we have been doing for several decades. With the advanced processors and the cumulative effort that has gone into robot programming, intuitive programming with a touch screen tablet is now a common standard in newer industrial robots.
Mobility for robots doesn’t really exist except for linear gantries and in certain toy robots. Autonomous mobility has been an incredible challenge since the earliest days of robots in the labs at MIT. DARPA has funded the autonomous vehicle challenge for a decade pouring many millions of dollars of incentive money and attracting top talent throughout the United States to the test. The challenge? Make a car drive by itself with only an adaptive computer program and sensors to operate the vehicle and navigate.
This is nothing like “cruise control” in a car or “auto pilot” in a plane. The ‘driverless’ car concept being promoted by Google and others will likely require several decades to achieve based on where we are today. Certainly the technology will improve, but the outcome of these efforts is not clear.
Can cars be driverless? Sure. The bigger question is; should they be? Even if computer driven cars can be shown to be safer, is society at large willing to put that into practice?
Will robots achieve autonomous mobility? This is an even more complex question because the the power source required and mechanics of a mobile robot are not capable of meeting this challenge. Most bi-pedal robots are on tethers so power and computing are done outside the unit. Strangely, the most promising solutions have been the likes of MIP from Wowee toys an BB-8 from the latest Star Wars episode.
More to come next week.