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Job-share robot 'cleans steel surfaces'

By: Fiona Livy
22 August, 2013

Robotic butlers, à la The Jetsons, may be some years away, but "robotic colleagues", who work with humans and not in place of them, are closer than you think.

Advances in robot design could transform the civil infrastructure maintenance, aged care, agriculture and manufacturing industries, according to University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Professor Gamini Dissanayake.

"It's all about shared control," says Professor Dissanayake, who is the director of UTS's Centre for Autonomous Systems (CAS).

"The emphasis is more about keeping the human intelligence and using the strengths of the robots to achieve joint tasks more effectively," he says.

For more than a decade, researchers at the centre, together with colleagues at the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales, have been working on developing intelligent machines that can operate in difficult and unknown environments. Researchers at UTS excelled in the fields of perception and control, which led to the development of a robotic navigation algorithm Dissanayake calls SLAM – simultaneous localisation and mapping.

"For two people to ever be able to put something together, they have to have an understanding of what each is trying to do. To get that same understanding into a robot is the research challenge, but I think we're getting there," says Professor Dissanayake.

For example, they have developed a robot that can collect crucial information to help rescue teams who arrive first at the scene of major disasters.

One of the biggest growth areas, Professor Dissanayake says, is infrastructure maintenance.

"We have two very big projects in that space – one is a robot to clean steel surfaces, the other is centred on inspecting large diameter water pipes."

The centre is also developing commercial-grade products in aged-care, which have substantial community benefits. CAS, in collaboration with the UTS Faculty of Health, is developing robotic prototypes of a wheelchair, walker, hoist and telepresence device, which "is like Skype on wheels," says Professor Dissanayake.

The machines share control with the person; the amount of autonomy the machine has depends on the capability of the person.

"It's no different to the way your ABS or electronic stability system works in a car – you hit the brake, or you turn the steering, and the car goes in the direction you want."

By next year, the team hopes to have two of these machines deployed at an aged-care home in Woonona, near Wollongong, where they will be trialled.

If all goes to plan, commercial versions of the products should be available within two to three years.

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