ASCENSION: PhD student Shaukat Asidi, Mary Anne Williams and PR2.
"Think of your most tedious household cleaning task. Now think
about never having to do it again," exhorts the US robotics company
iRobot on its website.
For US$500 (NZ$631) you can buy the Roomba 770 vacuum cleaning
robot made by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spin-off
company. But why would you do that when you can buy much the same thing
from Robomaid Australia for A$400 (NZ$511)?
The robotic future is here.
Online you can order household robots to wash your floors and scoop
your gutters and clean your swimming pool. This week, an Israeli
company claimed a world first in performing robot-guided brain surgery.
Around the world, robots are integrated into factories. In the West
Angelas iron mine in the Pilbara, Rio Tinto is running robotic drill
rigs remotely from Perth, hauling ore with driverless trucks and soon,
with driverless trains. The Port of Brisbane is operated largely by
robots, monitored from Sydney.
"Ten years ago, robots were knocking on our doorstep. Now they have
invaded," says Professor Mary-Anne Williams, director of the
innovation and enterprise research laboratory at the University of
UTS's Magic Lab is the proud owner of a PR2 from Willow Garage in
the US. It is using the robot for research into co-robotics, jargon for
human-robot interactions, which is the next big thing in robot
development. Most industrial robots are not safe to be around,
Williams says. Because they have difficulty recognising and responding
to the presence of humans, they have to be confined to work cells off
limits to people.
But leaps in sensing and vision technologies are making robots sensitive to co-workers.
"The new vision, the next generation, is for people working side by
side with robots," Williams says. The PR2, one of about 50 of its kind
in the world, can stop and back off if it runs into someone. It can
high-five. It can hug.
Melbourne industrial cutting equipment maker Sutton Tools has been
using Japanese-made FANUC robots to move components on and off
processing lines around its factories in Australia and New Zealand for
the past five years.
The chief engineering executive, Phillip Xuereb, says a machine
integrated with the robot system achieves a 40 per cent efficiency gain
compared with one without.
Obvious advantages they have over humans is that they don't get tired, bored or sick.
"They are very well accepted by the employees because it makes
their job more efficient and takes away the dull and boring part of the
operations," Xuereb says.
The 95-year-old company employing 450 people and about 40 robots
has not retrenched anyone as a result of taking on robots, but "we have
been able to add more equipment without having to add more people to
the operation as we grow".
Manufacturing equipment supplier John Hart Pty Ltd has been the
Australian distributor for FANUC for 25 years. The Japanese company has
just built a second factory to keep up with the demand, says John
Hart's operations manager of automation and robotics, Simon Hales.
Because they are made in large volumes, and because they can be adapted
for different purposes, robots are "quite attractive" in price
compared with customised machinery, he says.