Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
A personal gaze (or daydream) into a future for mobile robots
Article Type: Viewpoint From: Industrial Robot: An International Journal, Volume 35, Issue 3.
Keywords: Robotics, Control technology, Remote control systems
My first thoughts about writing this editorial were to select some key themes for comment from this special collection of papers. However, on reflection this appears to be a waste of valuable space as these excellent papers can speak for themselves. Instead, I am going to muse on some potential applications for climbing and walking robots which have prospects of making them contribute to the global economy on a significant scale. The necessary attributes for them to achieve this are actually covered in this paper collection, especially in the papers covering state-of-the-art polymer actuators which permitting hopping action of micro-robots, wireless robot operation and wireless communications networks between swarms of robots.
I will not cover already much discussed areas such as search and rescue, health and defence. My focus will be on the economy in the context of rising populations and global warming constraints.
First consider the world's water supply. There are more deaths worldwide from contaminated water than from any other cause. Much of the damage is caused by seepage of heavy metals and other industrial waste chemicals into the ground water supply. Yet, water supplies in reservoirs, etc. are monitored largely by very coarse grained sampling by manned boats or fixed sensors. A swimming and diving robot armed with a suite of sensors could continuously monitor for all forms of pollutant building up real time and fine scale 3D contamination maps as it systematically scans an entire reservoir. It could lock on to a pollutant gradient and follow the pollutant back to its source so that remedial action could be taken before dangerous contamination levels are reached, thus avoiding vast clean up costs. A network of robots wirelessly linked and controlled from a base station could allow large water masses to be monitored on a practical time scale.
Next, consider the world's top soil supply which is becoming contaminated, eroded or desertified at an alarming rate such that a large percentage of the supply could be permanently destroyed within a 100 years, without appropriate action. Yet, soil surveys are presently carried out on a very coarse scale, typically a sample per kilometer by Ariel survey or manned land vehicle. Following the same principles as the water monitoring robot, a wireless network of cooperating land navigating robots controlled from a base station and each carrying a multi-sensor payload could produce fine scale 3D soil property and buried object maps of large sites on a practical time scale. The sensitivity could be such that the networks would act as early warning systems of pollution build up before dangerous levels are reached, thus avoiding enormous site remediation costs. The robots would need the property of being able to operate upside down should they capsize in rough terrain. An interesting variant in this regard would be to use swarms of hopping micro-robots armed with soil micro-sensors which could be sown over a large site like a crop spray.
For my final example consider wind turbines. Whilst these have gathered many enemies by now, multiple government policies globally seem to point to an inevitable vast increase in wind farms in very hostile environments, i.e. offshore. Now, one consequence of the input wind energy being “free” is that half the running costs, i.e. half the electricity generation costs, are tied up in inspection. A failed turbine bearing alone can result in the complete collapse of a £5 m tower and blade. The use of manual inspection offshore is extremely hazardous with workers regularly falling off 120m high towers in high winds a very likely occurrence. Continuous monitoring avoiding the high costs of taking turbines out of service appears to be the obvious solution. There is an opening here for umbilical-free climbing robots carrying condition monitoring sensors and regularly patrolling the whole side of a tower and area of a blade. Miniature robots would be needed to avoid interference with the dynamical performance of the blades. Wireless communication of data to an onshore base station could take place from many towers simultaneously so that abnormalities in any one tower could be discovered from group data analysis.
By now, I think that the reader will have thought up other analogous examples.
Bryan BridgeResearch Centre for Automated and Robotic NDT, London South Bank University, London, UK