Robot fiction makes fact

We’ve grown used to seeing robots in the industrial environment, but will the android of fiction ever become as commonplace. Maria Harding looks at the role of robots now and in the future.

Fictional robots are usually portrayed as humanoid, from 1927 when Fritz Lang presented a female robot in the film in Metropolis, through Robbie the Robot, to the robot heroes of popular culture – R2D2, C3P0, the Terminator and Data out of the new StarTrek. But just as we come to terms with the idea that these androids will remain fictional, a number of companies, universities and research agencies present some startlingly humanoid designs.

Historically, robots began life as able servants in handling loads and in hazardous environments such as foundries. But their flexibility and potential benefits were quickly recognised by a number of manufacturers, especially those in the automotive and related sectors. In 1972 Kawasaki installed a robot line at Nissan, Japan, using robots supplied by Unimation, and in 1977 Yaskawa introduced what is believed to be the first electrically controlled robot in Japan. Being able to use robots in hazardous environments is still an advantage. Good examples are the Staubli EX robots which are specially developed for environments such as spray painting and explosive areas, or the Pedesco robot from Pedesco, Ontario, which is used to clean up power plants after nuclear spills.

The replacement of human workers with robots has always caused controversy. Intelligent robots which can ‘see’ as well as ‘feel’ are used to perform jobs that once demanded skilled workers. An example is the automated production of servo and spindle motors for machine tools in a new automated factory opened by Fanuc near Tokyo. You can’t blame the robots though – they can’t help their inherent advantages of accuracy and tirelessness. What better way would there be to solve industrial applications like BSD Automotive’s laser welding line for high strength tailored blanks, which uses ABB robots to present sheet to the welder. Robots are clearly part of the modern industrial world, but where are they going next?

Robots of the future will have an impact in virtually every area of life. They become more sophisticated by the day, yet easier to program and to integrate. Work is already well advanced in the creation of a society where robots will harmonise with people to relieve them of a multitude of tasks. So far the whole purpose of robots has been industrially related. However, Mike Wilkins, managing director of Motoman Robotics says, ‘Within the foreseeable future industrial robots will be complemented by commercial robots for non manufacturing enterprises and even domestic robots.

‘Motoman’s parent company Yaskawa is currently involved in what it calls human mechatronics; that is the provision of new solutions aiming for the harmonious coexistence of humans and machines.’

Human mechatronics supports, complements or substitutes for human activities by proving extensive technologies in response to future social requirements. Examples include robots for the maintenance of live power lines, robots to reduce the work load for nurses in busy hospitals, and robots capable of working in a vacuum and other environments that disagree with humans. Future requirements may see us using space robots for the assembly of space stations.

Honda has also been working along these lines in the development of an extremely humanoid (if the human is wearing a crash helmet and a space suit) robot to work in car plants. His powerpack only lasts 15 minutes, but the company’s working on it.

Alternatively, the future may belong to the microbots. Ant like robots are currently being developed by MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab. We may see microbots thriving in their own localised, structured robot communities to solve co-operative applications, or to perform explosive ordnance disposal, or for planetary exploration.

At MIT’s Leg Laboratory, all kinds of walking and hopping motions being investigated. Geekbot, for example, transfers support from one foot to the other by dynamic rocking. Spring Flamingo is a study on bipedal walking – the first Leg Lab robot to use feet and active ankles. Another project is a 3D biped, which hops, runs and performs tucked somersaults.

Meanwhile, MIT’s Cog Shop is addressing AI, vision systems, hearing and tactile feeling.

So what will we do with ourselves when all this comes to being? Will the future see us all working in harmony with robotic colleagues, or living a life of leisure, or will science fact see humans as the slaves as the 22nd century?