ERCIM News No.42 - July 2000 [contents]

Trends in Robotics

by Liliane Peters

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe estimated that in the year 2002, there will be 800,000 operating industrial robots. Nearly 500,000 vacuum cleaning robots are expected to be installed in offices, public areas and homes by the same year. Based on the sales figures of toy robots like AIBO built by Sony Corp. or MindStorms built by Lego, it is expected that entertainment robots will become one of the real frontiers for the next decade. These are only some of the robot applications with market potential in this decade. To understand the application potential and the future trends in the field of robotics we have to look into more details to the latest technological improvements.

In the last decade the major improvements in the field of robotics came through technological breakthroughs in the areas of computing, telecommunication, software, electronic devices, etc.

The miniaturisation and power reduction of the processors made mobile computing possible and with it increased the ‘brain’ capabilities of mobile robots. The development and introduction of a standardised wireless communication protocol transformed the robots into a internet plugged system accessing all available information within the net.

The impact of the internet application and especially the web-based ones gave a boast to the development of embedded system applications in general. Through the integration of internet technologies into these ‘intelligent’ devices, the user-friendliness programming and remote monitoring capabilities increased. These capabilities on their turn contributed to the spreading and integration of a new generation of embedded systems into larger and more complex applications and environments. The robots on their turn started using these internet plugged devices and by this started increasing their area of operation and capabilities. In addition to this the improvement of haptic interfaces enlarged the capabilities of tele-operated robots. Tele-operated robots in hazardous environment and space as well as tele-medical assistance systems benefited from these improvements.

The ‘intelligence’ of systems or components increased over the last decade too, as reasoning and decision making methods were developed by the artificial intelligence or computational intelligence research communities and became state-of the art technologies. These technologies enabled the design of ‘intelligent sensors’, ‘intelligent actuators’, ‘intelligent planers’ or ‘intelligent decision making units’, which on their turn became subsystems of more complex ‘intelligent robots’. The improvement in areas like speech recognition, gesture recognition, image processing in general enabled the robots to become more ‘human-like’ in their communication interface with humans. These features increased their acceptance level outside the research labs, becoming museum guides, mobile information centres, etc.

In the area of ‘electronic business’ the industrial robots are changing too. The high competition existing on the global market requires ‘just in time’ products, a better utilisation of raw materials, a better utilisation of resources, and a lower consumption of energy. All these requirements imply new features for the industrial robots. First of all they have to be able to integrate into the software agent organised and monitored production line. The robots need communication capabilities with these ‘supervisors’ (software agents) and with other heterogeneous robots co-working in the same environment. Secondly they have to be able to adapt autonomously to production changes. Thirdly they have to be able to co-operate in a work team supporting reconfigurable production lines. These changes are under way.

While energy saving, miniaturisation and ‘intelligence’ become hallmarks of today’s industrial automation and robotics new developments in the area of new light materials, sensorless control and out-door navigation will improve the robots of the next decade. A car navigation system supporting the driver in foggy areas or a construction bulldozer supporting the driver to execute exact construction plans from a blueprint are just the beginning of the collaboration between humans and ‘robots’. Light manipulator and the improvement of haptic interfaces installed on mobile systems will increase the capabilities of today’s service robots. Not only one could be virtually at home by monitoring and requesting services from the ‘home butler’ remotely, but many elderly peoples could stay longer in their own house with a 24 hour support from a robot nurse that helps them, monitors their health status, calls the doctor, family, etc. in case of an emergency.

The latest trends in ‘robotic intelligence’ are towards imitating life. Biomimetic robots, evolutionary robots, emotion controlled robots are just some new research ideas. Although these approaches are very different in their nature all have a common goal, to improve the adaptivity and learning capabilities of robots, ‘breeding’ a new generation of robots with better ‘survival’ chances in their specific operational environment. Another area of technological challenge for the next decade is the development of microrobots and nanorobots for medical applications. Here we are just at the beginning of a long journey. Robots cleaning clogged blood vessels or repairing damaged tissues are still to be developed. But still the biggest challenge in robotics for the next decade will be to find the proper balance between human-assisted systems and fully autonomous ones, thus to combine technological capabilities with social expectation and requirements.

The present special issue reflects through the number and variety of presented topics that robotics has become an important IT field of research. I hope you will enjoy reading the very interesting reports the way I did, and find some new ideas or wish to join the robotic research community.

Please contact:
Liliane Peters - GMD
Tel: +49 2241 14 2046/2781