A. My background in robotics has focused, very heavily, on giving remote systems the onboard intelligence to effectively do the things that machines are good at, like fast calculation, data collection, analysis, and mobility and navigation. This makes the robots much easier to use and allows humans to do the things that we’re good at such as high level decision making, determining what are valuable questions that the machines can answer and understanding how this information fits into our broader understanding of what is going on in the world.
I have been working in UAVs for almost 10 years now. My current focus, at PrecisionHawk, is on a easy to use system that will go out and get the best possible data without the need for human involvement in control, flight, etc. A user just needs to throw the plane, and it won’t come down unless it gets good data or decides that the conditions aren’t sufficient to get that data efficiently.
Prior to this, I worked on fleets of cooperating vehicles that could communicate in the air and share the task of search and rescue. For example, with each different type of vehicle being able to use its unique abilities (hovering, driving, fast flight) for the mission. I also designed novel vehicle types and control for them. My background, and the focus of my doctoral work, was in space robotics for planetary exploration. The focus there being to give the robots artificial intelligence to effectively, and safely, navigate on another planet and perform useful science for us. Driving a mobile robot on Mars by hand from Earth, while possible, is not the most effective way to collect information.
Q. So, I understand that there are currently close to one million robots at work around the world. What sorts of roles are these machines performing and in what sorts of contexts?
A. Robots are finding their way into a great many applications. The most common use is still probably industrial robotics and manipulators used in manufacturing processes and dangerous work environments such as nuclear reactors. Robotic manipulators have been increasingly used for simulation and training, surgery, bomb disposal, and science and exploration on other planets, though perhaps the latter don’t count towards the “global” total once they’re launched.
Ground vehicles are showing all over the place as well. They have been used extensively for militaries and police forces all over the world and have been a great asset to keeping people away from very dangerous situations. Some radio control vehicles now have very sophisticated systems onboard. It’s now possible to buy a robotic vacuum the size of a frisbee that will drive around your house sweeping the floor and returning to its charger when needed. There are remote sensor buoys in the oceans and submersible “gliders” that can patrol the oceans for months collecting a huge variety of key information on everything from carbon absorption to salt content and temperature. In certain parts of the world demographics have led to a real concern in how to deal with people who need assistance with day-to-day living, and there is a great deal of development in that front. Countries like Japan have been working very hard to create systems that are not only very effective, but designed to be accepted by the person they are assisting. That means being able to understand, and even respond with, relevant emotional responses, visual and non-verbal cues such as “smiling” or furrowing a brow.