In the early 1980s, something happened to the science fiction genre. Gone were the matching uniforms and shiny spaceships; in their place alienated hackers sought solace from untrustworthy governments and crumbling economies in computer-generated environments. This all took place on a near-future Earth where anyone not a shill to a corrupt corporation had to scratch a living, including enterprising engineers who set up robot chop-shops to re-use discarded tech.
This subgenre became known as cyberpunk, and three decades on not only does the social setting sound familiar, but technology has also caught up with its prescient fictional counterpart. With cars, computers and other tech being made obsolete at an increasing rate of knots by autonomous upstarts, could they be repurposed into domestic robots or assistive tech for disabled people?
Bruce Sterling, a founder of the cyberpunk and steampunk literature genres, isn’t so sure.
“Have you ever seen anything directly made out of pieces of a recycled car?” he asks. “We’ve had hundreds of millions of cars for decades, but it’s pretty rare to go into somebody’s home or business and see any pieces of cars. Cutting-up cars is a cool idea, but people don’t do it because it’s such a hassle.”
Cutting-up cars is a cool idea, but people don’t do it because it’s such a hassle
Sterling says repurposing scrap technology into household gadgets is only worthwhile in areas of extreme poverty with no manufacturing, in places under economic embargo and in wartime. In rural India, for example, home hacks are known by the colloquial Hindi and Punjabi term Jugaad. Jugaad could see a road vehicle powered by an agricultural water pump engine, a wagon built on the back of a bicycle or an old telephone handset used to replace a missing chair arm.
“Even though it’s ingenious, it doesn’t work well because it doesn’t scale up and it’s not conveniently available through conventional retail channels,” says Sterling. “Instead of Jugaad, cars are fed into car-crushers and shredded. Reselling crushed and shredded bits of cars is actually a pretty good business. Not glamorous, but it pays okay.”
One place old cars are getting a new lease of life is Somalia, where since the early 1990s the word Technicals has been used to describe an improvised civilian pick-up truck or four-wheeled vehicle mounted with a weapon and used by local militia. The term has since been adopted by irregular armies in other conflict zones around the world, and they could soon incorporate driverless technologies in the same way as military manufacturers.
Outside of war zones, this sort of hack is rare. “There aren’t many chop-shop millionaires in the world. It’s unrewarding work and fiercely persecuted by the authorities because it encourages car-theft,” says Sterling.
Electronics have also crashed in price and don’t have much secondary market value. As a case in point, a DARPA programme called Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems (ICARUS) is developing a throwaway drone made of cardboard.
“So, instead of a Frankenstein world with steampunk mix-and-match cars and drones, a world of hacked and criminalised used cars and plastic drones seems a lot more plausible to me,” concludes Sterling. “Vehicles do get old, they get cruddy, people strip out the safety overrides and do illegal stuff with them; it’ll never be a full industrial base, but there’s a lot of grimy potential there.”
Recycled Robot Wars
One man who has seen his fair share of repurposed junk is Noel Sharkey, Robot Wars judge and emeritus professor of Artificial Intelligence, Robotics & Public Engagement at the University of Sheffield.
“In the first incarnation of Robot Wars, the most common motors were recycled from large lorry and coach windscreen wipers and electric window winders, fire extinguishers and heavy duty batteries,” he says. “Would-be contestants were circulating around scrap yards everywhere, and when I visited them myself for robot components, they would say, ‘It’s all your fault that we’re being swamped with kids!’”
However, in the latest 2017 reboot on BBC2, this is no longer the case as the battles require high efficiency and power to win.
“The technology has moved on fairly dramatically and so we see a lot of brand new motors and [wear-resistant sheet steel] hardox armour in the winning teams, and brand new lithium polymer batteries that you won’t find in scrap yards,” says Sharkey. “I would love to see a strictly recycled robot competition that really pushed on creativity – a scrapyard challenge of robotics.”
Sharkey argues that although recycled technology may not be acceptable for assistive technology, it can be useful for developing prototypes. “I once turned an electric wheelchair into a navigating robot to carry people who couldn’t steer themselves but it wouldn’t have been commercially acceptable,” he says.
Sharkey believes that in the current environment, researchers and manufacturers working in robotics have a responsibility to recycle to limit environmental impact.
“It is not part of our mainstream engineering culture at present, but I would certainly support a drive in this direction,” he says. “The problem is that technology is evolving so quickly with components getting smaller and more efficient that it is difficult to use the old. In the future, we may go through a period of technological stability and then recycling will become much more popular.”
That responsibility extends to robots in the workplace. Professor Samia Nefti-Meziani, professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, holds a chair in Robotics and is the Director of the Centre for Autonomous Systems and Advanced Robotics at the University of Salford.
“We’re interested in Industry 4.0; cyber-physical systems that will be used in cognitive factories of the future,” says Nefti-Meziani. “The aim is to build robots that can think, collaborate and safely share the same workspace as the workers on the shop floor, and collaborate and cooperate intelligently with each other.”
Nefti-Meziani says her team reuses components such as actuators and drives to build new robots or prototypes, as robotics research is always is hungry for money. But not everything can be re-used.
“Drones, robots and cars are often made using carbon fibre that cannot be recycled,” she explains. “And robot arms used for decommissioning in the nuclear industry have to be decommissioned themselves when they finish the job.”
Nefti-Meziani believes low-cost robotics, sustainability, energy efficiency and recyclability are equally important, and more needs to be done to reinforce that element of projects.
“We need sustainability to be built into the core of everything,” she says.
Jim Finnis is a PHD student in Aberystwyth University’s Intelligent Robotics Group. He has worked on a control system for a Mars rover prototype using cheap hobbyist kit, designed a hormone-based power management system for the real ExoMars rover for EADS, and carried out a depth survey of Loch Morlich using the group’s robot boat, Minty 2, to look for a wreck off the coast of Pembrokeshire.
“We reuse motors and small computers a lot – Arduinos [microcontroller kits] and Raspberry Pis, typically, and other components; bits of wiring and switches and knobs,” he says. “We have drawers full of old kit, some of it very old. However, once we have bolted it into a project it can be hard to unbolt.”
While Finnis agrees with Nefti-Meziani that not everything can be re-used – robot chassis are generally different every time, for example – many components can. He is using an old webcam to track a robot in his current experiments, for example.
“The camera looks for a red blob, which is an LED ripped out of an old circuit and covered with a ping-pong ball with a hole cut in it, powered by a watch battery using an impromptu battery holder made out of paperclips,” he says. “But that kind of improvisation wouldn’t work in a robot designed for tough environments.”
Finnis also has a scavenger-friendly hobby: building weird musical instruments, including a plumber’s tube that forms a light-driven instrument dubbed the Bloody Stupid Johnson Memorial Oboe and a self-playing glockenspiel made out of an old school instrument and bits of a biro.
He also made a ‘data glove’ from an old glove, some conductive thread, a bright LED, an accelerometer and a MoteINO – a tiny wireless-enabled computer – which looks like it has reached straight out from the pages of a cyberpunk novel. You can see it in action here with dancer Cêt Haf using it to control the parameters and sections of a performance piece.
Our cyberpunk present
While we may feel the technical and political environment is ripe for the robot chop-shops cyberpunk authors and filmmakers imagined, legal and practical restrictions and the low price of new components means we’re unlikely to be living alongside hacked-together automatons in the near future. But this hasn’t stopped professional and amateur roboticists from using recycled materials for their projects.
So in the spirit of Jugaad, keep the entrepreneurial spirit alive by using found materials to suspend your laptop above your bed tonight to watch a film without straining your neck. Or drift off to the strains of the Bloody Stupid Johnson Memorial Oboe.