Browse All Categories
08.20.2014

Tech Breakthroughs Paving the Way for Robots

By: Irwin Amago, PrecisionHawk GIS Image Analyst

Pop culture paints a picture of our collective imagination, and we are enamored with the concept of robots. When they first appeared in print and film, robots were our way of conceptualizing how technology can change our world. We imbued on them our hopes for progress and our fears about the rapid developments of society and the loss of our humanity.

We have undoubtedly come a long way, turning robots from science fiction to science fact, beginning with the earliest modern robots like George Devol’s “Unimate” to Japan’s ubiquitous ASIMO. Today, albeit quietly, robots are everywhere. They’re flying in our skies helping farmers make better agricultural decisions. They’re diving into oceans to survey salt or carbon concentration. They’re at assembly lines putting together our smartphones and gadgets with utmost precision. They’re even in other planets, gathering scientific evidence.

Nonetheless, people are still disappointed. The robots of the 21st century still do not measure up to what literary wordsmiths like Isaac Asmiov or visionary filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick have compelled us to aspire for. The progress of robotic platforms depends on the availability of cutting edge technologies to support the functionality that is desired. Essentially, it is new and supporting technology that will pave the way for the robots of the future.

This couldn’t be any truer for us at PrecisionHawk. Innovations, like better artificial intelligence, longer lasting batteries and even 3D printing, have allowed us to push the capabilities of our platform to more effectively meet the needs of our clients. New technologies will continue to push our ambitions and enhance the quality of information we can provide with the absolute minimal amount of human interaction.

With the momentum that we have today, a literal arms race in chip quality and game-changing technologies like quantum computing and the memresistor looming in the horizon, a lot is about to change for robots.

Better Sensors for Better Robots

How do we, as humans, perceive the world around us? We see it, smell it, feel it, taste it—and from these sensations we are able to form our next thought or opinion based on the experience. Our decisions are shaped by what we are able to sense. Sensation is the foundation of our cognition. Now think in terms of robotics. How do they sense the world around them?

Imagine, for example, robots with advanced tactile sensors. Not only will they be able to see and hear humans, the ability to touch provides a totally new dimension of interaction. Additionally, tactile sensors can also help robots understand the physical properties of objects better by providing the robot with a sense of “self” and allowing it to differentiate this “self” from the external space around it. Key innovations could come from so-called robotic skins equipped with high level transduction sensors.

The sensors that are becoming available for small UAV platforms are changing the game dramatically. For example, farmers now have the ability to fly multi or hyper spectral sensors every week during a grow season in an effort to map change detection or identify crop stress before it's visible to the human eye. This not only cuts down on the high costs of manned aviation, which was one of the only viable options for flying these sensors in the past, but provides a new level of flexibility for the decision-maker. Information in the right hands at the right time.

More Power Means More Work

Another key breakthrough required for the advancement of robotic technology is the expansion of power capacity. Let’s go back to the human analogy. We eat three times or more per day and each meal provides us with the fuel to survive the daily grind. Now take the case of robots. The immense computational and physical load that they will have to carry out entails a hefty power input that cannot be supported by our commercially available batteries. It is critical to have more advanced battery capacities to power our robots because, otherwise, we would constantly need to charge them, canceling out whatever efficiency they introduce.

Fortunately, battery technology is advancing very fast. The demand for longer battery life in smartphones and other smart gadgets is driving engineers and scientists to come up with portable batteries that have extended life spans. There are a few breakthroughs right now that are particularly interesting. One of these is the ultracapacitor, designed as an amped up version of regular capacitors, which are able to store more energy and absorb energy faster than regular electrochemical batteries.

At PrecisionHawk, battery life in our UAV platform is a top priority. Over the past two years we have extended our flight time to reach an hour on our 4lb platform. Along with every other company in the space, we have our eyes out for the next best solution. Our users want increased efficiency and a hands off approach. A longer battery life can enhance both of those requirements moving ahead.

The Right Materials for the Right Robot

What if human bones were made of a slightly more brittle material? This would mean that high impact sports or extreme sporting activities could be much more dangerous than they already are. Even daily activities that need strenuous physical effort would be difficult to do. We’re lucky, therefore, that our body is made up of the right materials. This is the same for robots. They need to be made of just the right kinds of materials—malleable and flexible in some areas while rigid and strong in others.

Many involved in the space have been looking at extremely soft and flexible robots made of materials like silicone. This somehow belies all our usual conceptions of technology. When we think machines, we think hard and strong devices made of the toughest steel. These soft and flexible robots will be able to carry out a far wider range of motions that are critical in precision tasks, like surgery, or navigating through hazardous and volatile environments, like nuclear reactors. Of course, soft doesn’t mean flimsy. These robots still need to have a strong outer layer that’s resistant to wear and tear.

Computation is the Key to Intelligence

At the very center of our collective vision of robots is sentience. We’ve always imagined the robot as capable of thinking by itself, perceiving and taking in external stimulus to decide on what to do. Today, basic artificial intelligence is available and advancements in computing are allowing for more nuanced and complex intelligence to be introduced into machines. This is critical in enhancing the ease of use that these intelligent machines afford.

At PrecisionHawk, we put great value in artificial intelligence. We want to make a seamless solution for our clients, one that will not impose on a work flow but instead be easily integrated. This means that our platform has to remove as much of the human factor as possible so that all the client has to do is to input a bit of data, the flight parameters for example, throw the bird, and retrieve the information that they need quickly and automatically.

This is a truly exciting time for computation. Quantum computing has been touted as the solution to many of the complex computational problems that have hounded us like protein folding or extremely large scale database analysis. With such a technology in fruition, artificial intelligence can make great strides forward.

The Challenge of Robustness

Now, while all these breakthroughs are awe-inspiring, it is important to remember that the goal in making an effective and useful robot is robustness. No matter how much we pad our robots with the latest technologies, they will not be able to make a dent in society’s demands if we cannot make them durable, reliable and dependable. The challenge is to design robots like we design cars, with as little upkeep and maintenance as possible.

I believe that robotics will continue to proliferate, and with increasing speed, across our daily lives.The biggest change that we will begin to see is institutions and infrastructure being adapted to better accommodate robotics and take better advantage of them. Understanding that these platforms can fit seamlessly  into our existing workflows and provide information from a new perspective with an unmatched flexibility (specifically in terms of UAVs) will be the challenge moving ahead.