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21 January 2012


Tag(s): Technology

For my first blog of a new year I usually like to turn my  attention to the future, but on this occasion I want to deal with a future trend, robotics. For a long time now robots have been the stuff of science fiction with writers imagining a world in which everything is done by robots and man’s very purpose is called into question. Dr Who battled perennially with the Daleks, a robotic civilisation. The fact is that robots are already here in large numbers and will become pervasive, though not perhaps as the science fiction writers foretold.

For some time cars and other heavy goods have been largely assembled by robots, one of the reasons why cars are so much more reliable now, allowing manufacturers to offer long warranty periods and service intervals. More often than not when you are airborne you’re being flown automatically including take-off and landing. The regulators insist that a proportion of the landings are manual so that the pilots keep their hand in and those are probably the bumpy ones. The agencies who seek to spy on other nations will use pilotless drones to gather information and these vehicles are now being increasingly used in military service raising complex ethical dilemmas. Very popular robots have been bought as toys particularly in Japan and in the same country robots are helping clean up the mess at Fukushima after the tsunami. In camel racing in Abu Dhabi child jockeys have been replaced by robots. Robots can fix us medically and surgery will become safer and more accurate with the use of robots. They mine for us and can be diverted according to market demand. The life expectancy of a uranium miner is appallingly low and robots are taking over this dangerous work.  They can haul loads for us. Robots are used in exploration over land in impenetrable places; increasingly under the sea where man also finds it impossible to dive; and soon our envoy to Mars will be a robot.

I gleaned all this at a recent lecture at the Royal Society to which I was invited. The lecturer was Professor Paul Newman, Fellow of New College, Oxford, who now has the Chair in Information Engineering at Oxford University. Professor Newman obtained an MEng in Engineering Science from Oxford University in 1995. He then undertook a PhD in autonomous navigation at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, at the University of Sydney. In 1999 he returned to the UK to work in the commercial sub-sea navigation industry. In late 2000 he joined the Department of Ocean Engineering at MIT, where as a post-doctoral researcher and later a research scientist, he worked on algorithms and software for robust autonomous navigation for both land and sub-sea agents. In early 2003 he returned to Oxford as a departmental Lecturer in Engineering Science before being appointed to a University of Lectureship in Information Engineering.  Prof. Paul Newman is now a faculty member of the University of Oxford's Department of Engineering Science where he heads up the Mobile Robotics Group (MRG). He is also a tutorial fellow in Engineering at New College and EPSRC Leadership Fellow.

Professor Newman went on to tell us where robots would be found next. They’ll grow for us and will be able to plant seed much more accurately and efficiently. They’ll do the weeding, too, but again with great accuracy only removing undesirable weeds and leaving the good stuff untouched. They’ll hang out inside us to monitor and prepare us for surgery. By monitoring our general condition they can report when problems are identified and thus anticipate major events. They’ll defend us and it is forecast that one third of US military vehicles will be autonomous by 2015. They’ll carry out bomb detection and disarming. But Professor Newman assured us that they will not be like humans for quite a while.

The benefits of all this must be obvious but should still be stated. There will be more time for more interesting work and pastimes. Robots will be more efficient and safer. There’ll be some gorgeous applications we can only dream about now. Some of these are niche but in all they will be vastly varying. Robots are already widely used in manufacturing. In Japan there are over 300 robots for every 10,000 manufacturing employees. In the UK it’s about 50 just ahead of the global average but behind Japan, South Korea, Germany and the US.

But Professor Newman believes that one of the most important applications will be transport. “We are not condemned to a future of congestion, accidents and time wasting” he says. In the UK which has a pretty good safety record comparatively speaking 2,000 were killed on the road in 2008 through driver error alone. Worldwide the numbers are hugely higher. We deny access to all but the fully able. We don’t drive efficiently or well. We have an aging population so the situation is if anything getting worse. Most journeys are by car and whether we like it or not personal travel is here to stay. Basically we are stuck with the legacy of the man with a pony and trap. The motor car is based on the pony and trap which is based on the chariot, a pretty ancient technology.

Professor Newman sees the day when cars will bid online for insurance policies over short journeys and timescales. He appeals for a time when the cars decide; bid for insurance in real time; decide when they can drive autonomously and get better at driving over time as they acquire and share information.

To do this we need cars to decide where they are and never get lost. This will be based on on-board technologies, cameras, sensors, processors and communication devices, all of which are tumbling in cost and driving up capacity. It will not depend on infrastructure except the communication networks already in place and the road markings already provided. GPS is not sufficiently accurate to make such judgments. If is accurate to say 2/3 metres and the next car has equipment telling it the same more or less, that is not sufficiently precise for the two vehicles to drive side by side round a roundabout. But with a camera you can map anywhere.

This is experience based navigation. The cars will learn from their observations and from each other and over time will start to recognise journeys and offer to take over the driving.

Professor Newman has backing from big corporations who see the value of what he is doing and is soon to start working with Nissan on a number of vehicles. Professor Newman invited me to visit him at his laboratory outside Oxford and see one of the vehicles for myself. Don’t worry it will be a while yet before one of Professor Newman’s cars comes after you with its owner safely asleep at the wheel but it’s going to happen, sooner or later.

Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved

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