Ask Sethu Vijayakumar what your robot needs for Mars
As entertainingly shown in his recent TEDxGlasgow talk, 'Sending your robot to Mars? List of things to pack', Professor Sethu Vijayakumar of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics is a man whose space age thinking also has great application potential for dealing with challenges closer to home.
His fascinating talk covers the technological needs for unmanned robotic pre-deployment missions to Mars and with help from both human and robotic assistants demonstrates the opportunities developing technology could have to help with issues ranging from future health support to meeting industrial demands safely and sustainably.
Sethu and his team are collaborating with NASA on unmanned technology that will be sent into space, working on developing humanoid robots for unmanned pre-deployment missions on Mars. Such advances would make such missions much cheaper (by about 50-60%), much more sustainable longer term and help validate untested technology in the field without putting human lives in danger.
But what capabilities would such robots need to 'pack' to be fully prepared for their mission? As Sethu explains, the essentials for a successful trip will need to include developments in robotic sensors and perception, real-time control, compliant technology and the ability to learn from data and experience. And while the robots may be a way off being trip-ready as yet, the research and development for the perfect 'kit' is underway.
Question of control
Already robotics are playing a part in autonomous systems, with ideas such as self-drive cars, but interesting core technology is being developed and deployed in the area of 'shared autonomy', with systems transitioning from user-in-the-loop operations to autonomous systems as needed. The talk audience got to see shared autonomy in action with an impressive on-stage demonstration of shared control of exoskeleton and prosthetic devices.
Bringing advantages home
While these robotic developments have obvious benefits for NASA's Mars missions, the developing technology also has huge potential to help with several daunting challenges facing us in the future. Such robotics could work in extreme or dangerous environments that are unsafe for humans, for example in the asset inspection and maintenance of large offshore oil and gas rigs or in nuclear environments, enabling operations and exploration that would otherwise be too difficult. They could also help in hard-to-access infrastructures, such as drainage, high rise buildings and bridges, allowing for safe and scalable infrastructure. In addition, similar technology could help with the health challenges of an ageing population, bringing effective shared control to new prosthetic and exoskeleton devices.
This is out-of-this-world thinking for real-world problem-solving.