The next wave of robotics to enter mass use will be service robots working autonomously with or for humans, according to Nick Hawes, senior lecturer in robotics at the University of Birmingham.
Speaking at last week’s AI & Robotics Innovation Forum in London, UK, Hawes outlined the benefits for service industries such as care, where simple tasks such as cleaning and monitoring could be undertaken by robots.
This would free up humans to perform more complex roles and give them more time to attend to the needs of their charges, something that would be very welcome in an industry that is under pressure from tight budgets and an ageing population.
For Hawes, roboticists need to consider in what markets existing robotics technology will have the biggest impact, so that they can develop technologies that can be used in real-world situations.
However, he highlighted the need to ensure the acceptability of robots in working environments: people must not see robots as replacing them, but more as helpers that do the most mundane tasks and free up people’s time with more complex and subjective work.
One the of biggest challenges in making mobile, autonomous robots is enabling them to safely and effectively respond to the wide range of environments and situations found in human spaces.
“I see enabling robust and reliable autonomy in human environments as a key enabler for mobile robots,” Hawes said.
In his talk at the forum, Hawes outlined the three ingredients needed in an autonomous system: perception, decision making and action.
Perception is the area that robotics has achieved the most in, with technologies such as Kinect making the jump to consumer use. However, decision making – how the robot decides on its next move – and action – how the robot affects the world around it – still have some way to go.
Hawes is currently working on a project with security megafirm G4S to create night watch robots.
Called STRANDS, the project aims to teach robots the normal patterns of daily life in an office environment to detect variations in behaviour that may indicate a security issue.
At present the trial robot, affectionately known as Bob, is being taught daily patterns by continual patrolling of set spaces at different times of the day.
Although Bob considerable work is being done to teach bob how to respond to environments that a human would have no problem with, he could lead to a robot that can spot security issues or behavioural shifts that a human might have missed.