Credit: Mikal Schlosser

Q&A: Next generation of robots get situation awareness

Robot technology and automation
Robots that can read their surroundings and adapt their actions thereafter are currently being developed, says Professor Ole Ravn.

Professor Ole Ravn is in charge of DTU’s research within robotics and automation, which was recently boosted with the hiring of more researchers and the establishment of a new study programme. Below, the professor answers questions about the prevailing trends in robot development.

Q: When can we buy robot helpers for domestic chores?

A: Although robot maids and kitchen robots for cooking have been developed somewhere in the world, we must remember that there is a long way from having an idea to buying that idea in the nearest DIY centre. We currently have robots that can perform simple tasks like mowing the lawn or vacuuming, and I think we will see more of these kinds of solutions before we get robots that can solve more complex tasks. Higher complexity requires quite advanced technology—such as artificial intelligence—that also needs to be completely reliable and work every time. Otherwise, consumers will not bother to invest in a helper robot, since it would be easier and perhaps also cheaper to hire a house cleaner. But we may be able to buy an advanced robot helper for our homes in 20 years’ time.

Q: Industry has long had automation. What developments will we see in this sector?

A: We are on the verge of a breakthrough with collaborative robots, the so-called cobots. The technology is now so developed that robots will be equipped with situation awareness, which enables them to read their surroundings and take any changes into account. For example, this means that they can avoid bumping into people or things that are moving, and they will also be able to anticipate events. Consequently, humans and robots will be able to work more closely together, and robots will no longer work in enclosures such as cages. We will see the collaborative robots appear in manufacturing companies first, where they can help employees with, e.g., feeding items into a machine or emptying it again.

Q: What drives the development?

A: The development is jointly driven by several industries. One of these is the gaming industry, which, among other things, develops sensors that create 3D rather than 2D images. Mobile phone developments have resulted in huge improvements in battery life, which also benefits robot and drone technology. And then there is the development of artificial intelligence and self-learning systems which can be used in robots too. In the world of research, development is first and foremost driven by curiosity and not least by the global competitions that our research group also participates in. We have been selected to participate in an international competition in Abu Dhabi in February 2020, where we will get autonomous robots and drones to collaborate in order to solve a number of tasks.

Q: Are robots becoming a greater part of our lives?

A: Yes, the trend is towards the automation of more and more processes and tasks. We are already accustomed to a driverless metro, and in future we will see autonomous ferries. Robotics is also moving into the health sector, becoming involved in treatments such as surgery and working as assistants in tasks related to patient care. We will also start exploiting this technology for hazardous tasks, such as fire extinguishing or filling station inspections, or in places that are difficult to access, such as wind turbine blades or the bottom of the ocean. Smaller companies will also start using robots, partly because the technology has become cheaper and partly because the robots are becoming more user-friendly, which means that it does not require a highly paid programmer to get them to solve a new task.

Q: What are the biggest misunderstandings regarding robots?

A: The biggest misunderstanding is the one about robots stealing our jobs. It is true that they perform some of the manual tasks that used to be performed by people. But in Denmark’s case, we already lost those jobs when the companies started moving production out of the country. When robots can solve those tasks, we can actually get the production back to Denmark, because we no longer have to compete on expenses such as wages. Another widespread misunderstanding is that development is much further ahead than it actually is. You may have seen robots in Star Wars and believe that R2-D2 and C-3PO are just around the corner. Admittedly, developments in robotics are happening at a remarkable pace these years, but we have many years of research and development ahead of us before we will get to see even simple robot helpers in our homes.