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What does the future hold for robots?

17 March, 2006

The World Technology Evaluation Center has recently published a report based on its assesment of international research and development in robotics. This article explains the purpose of the study.

The World Technology Evaluation Center

Introduction

Robotics has undergone a major transformation in the last decade. Long accepted by Japanese industry to improve factory efficiency and augment human performance, robots are now being welcomed into Japanese homes, schools, and a variety of public institutions.

Advanced research in the new generation of robots focuses on flexible engineering design and intelligent software, combined with the revolutionary changes in micro and nano technologies. As a result, new robotic technologies are poised to usher in a wave of new applications from manufacturing, computer-assisted surgery, learning and entertainment, to homeland security and human/medical services.

Similar advancement in robotics is also occurring in Europe. There the main strengths lie in their strategic planning and implementation of EU-wide and national programs for university-industry project consortia bringing research into application effectively and quickly.

In the United States, robotics has been historically a key strength of interdisciplinary research in academic institutions, mainly supported by government agencies. There have been new interests in making robotic systems an integral part of human activities ranging from personal services, space exploration, to homeland security.

Pursuit of these novel and unique applications of robotics, however, requires us to maintain a first rate research program across public and private sectors as well as to involve our researchers and laboratories in collaborative efforts with the leaders in the field wherever they may be in the world. Thus, with new advances abroad and renewed domestic interests, an international assessment of robotics R&D activities at this juncture is both desirable and timely.

Purpose

The purpose of this study was to gather information and disseminate it to government decision-makers and the research community on worldwide status and trends in robotics R&D. The study panelists gathered information on robotics R&D abroad useful to the U.S. government in its own R&D programs, and to critically analyse and compare the research in the United States with that being pursued in Japan and Europe. This information serves the following purposes:

- Identify good ideas overseas worth exploring in U.S. R&D programs
- Clarify research opportunities and needs for promoting progress in the field generally
- Identify opportunities for international collaboration and mechanisms for achieving it
- Evaluate the position of foreign research programs relative to those in the U.S.
- Scope

Robotics is a versatile, multi-disciplinary field, spanning a number of scientific and engineering areas where the latest knowledge and technological advances dictated in part how we determined the scope of this study.

In addition, various R&D programs across the Federal government focus on different priorities according to their agency missions. As a guide for us to converge on to a set of common goals and define the proper scope, it was useful to envision a 2-dimensional assessment matrix. In one dimension is the grouping of core technologies that form the foundation of robotics R&D: e.g., kinematics, sensing, learning and adaptation, coordination, teleoperation, intelligence, human interface, and programming. A second dimension is the grouping of various characteristics unique to advanced or novel applications of robotics. These include:

Personal and Service Robotics

The focus of this application is for the robots to perform a service function with a human (or a group of humans) and in the public space (as opposed to the highly structured professional space below). Among the examples of this application are those robots used for learning, education, and entertainment, house keeping, office automation, and aids for physically challenged individuals. Research issues emphasize friendly and cooperative interfaces, simple but flexible structures, and adaptability to human needs.

Medical Robotics

This application spans the broad areas of robotic devices and systems that can be used to improve clinical practice in the medical settings under the strict rules of a professional space (as opposed to the public space above). Examples of this application include computer-assisted surgery, telemedicine, robotic devices for the handicapped, and micro or nano devices for drug intervention. Safety, reliability, and real-time feedback are the priority research issues.

Industrial Robotics

This is a more mature application for robotics and by far the most market-driven. The majority of the robots deployed worldwide are of this type. Typical uses for industrial robots are material handling, automated assembly, and other labor-replacing tasks in such manufacturing settings as semiconductor, electronics, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, food processing and automotive industries.

Military, Environmental, and Space Robotics

This application is for use in land, undersea, space, and crisis or security management. The focus here is for the robots to function in a hostile, tedious, or hard-to-access environment, usually unknown, very complex or poorly structured. Priority issues for research include reliability, safety, and versatility.

Using the above description of a 2-dimensional matrix - technology vs. application, it was possible to converge onto a list of topics from which to choose the areas of emphases and to define the scope of this study. These include:

- Robotic engineering – kinematics, control, manipulation, dexterity, design and programming
- Robotics intelligence – sensing and sensor integration, motion/path planning; learning and adaptation, reasoning and cognition, multi-robot coordination
- Remote and distributed robotics – teleportation, simulation, virtual environments
- Human interface – vision, speech and language, haptics
- Integrated robotic systems – nano/micro robotics, humanoids
 -Novel and special robotic applications – personal and service robotics, medical robotics, industrial robotics, military, homeland security and rescue operations, space and underwater explorations, learning and education tools, entertainment robotics

Finally, beyond the above technical issues, the study seeked to address the following non-technical issues:

- Mechanisms for enhancing international and interdisciplinary cooperation in the field
- Opportunities for shortening the lead time for deployment of new robotics technologies emerging from the laboratory
- Long range research, educational, and infrastructure issues that need addressed to promote better progress in the field
- Current government R&D funding levels overseas compared to the United States, to the extent data are available.

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