Date: June 16 2012
''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 $US500 ($A499) 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 locally from Robomaid Australia for $400? 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 Technology, Sydney. 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, says Williams. Because they have difficulty recognising and responding to the presence of humans, they have to be confined to work cells, which are 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.
''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.
With robotics systems now more intelligent, able to make decisions for themselves, more flexible and more adaptable, most clients are ''quite surprised'' to learn that ''for a lot of applications, you could probably spend $20,000 to $40,000 and have a robot that will do the job for you'', Hales says.
US President Barack Obama announced a robot-led renaissance of US manufacturing last June. Of the $500 million initiative to kick-start smart manufacturing, $70 million would go to robotics projects, the President said after touring a robotics facility in Pittsburgh.
Until now, US robotics has been focused on defence industries, Europe has concentrated on manufacturing and Japan has taken the lead in developing humanoid robots for the service industry, particularly aged care.
Australia, though, is clear world leader in field robotics, says Hugh Durrant-Whyte, the chief executive of National ICT Australia and a leader of Australian robotics research. With its ''big empty spaces'', Australia is ''probably … the best place in the world to do robots'', he says, citing mining, cargo handling, marine and maritime, defence and agricultural applications.
It is industry wisdom that robots add best value on tasks that are ''dull, dirty and dangerous'', says Salah Sukkarieh, a professor of robotics and intelligent systems at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney. But research in which he is involved shows widening applications as robots become better able to interpret and interact with changing environments. Unmanned aerial vehicles are being used to map locations of specific weeds across large land areas then deliver targeted payloads of insecticide. Horticulture Australia is funding research into using robots to monitor fruit tree health and count potential yields. Eventually, when they can be taught to recognise ripeness and pick without fruit damage, robots may be used for harvesting, Sukkarieh says.
Australia also does world-leading edge research in the burgeoning field of compliance, says the president of the Australian Robotics and Automation Association, Dr Matthew Dunbabin, who is principal research scientist at the CSIRO Information and Communication Technologies Centre. His CSIRO work, for example, involves robot measurement of carbon sequestration for use in greenhouse gas accounting. Robots can go around forests and measure tree diameters to provide estimates of how much carbon is captured there.
Australia's competitive advantage will lie in teaming its world-leading researchers with the companies and industries that need the technology and using the results of such collaboration to insert itself in related overseas markets, argues Durrant-Whyte.
Professor Roy Green agrees. He is a member of the Prime Minister's manufacturing taskforce, which is preparing a report to the government. ''It would be great to think that we were a centre for robotics manufacturing but it is unlikely to be the case,'' he says. Australia is more likely to play an important part in the global robot supply chain, in the design and implementation of robotics systems and in the design of components and business models, says Green, who is the dean of the school of business at UTS.
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