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Do You Want To Know About Robots

Do You Want To Know About Robots?

If you do, you are not alone over 9 million people put the word robot into Google. If you live in the UK the best place to see and interact with them is in Bristol. Bristol is a very inventive place. You say Hot Air Baloons, Concord, Ships, etc and you say Bristol.

The Bristol Robotics Lab is the largest of its kind in the UK. It is an academic lab, exploring the technologies that will build the robots of the future. And, sometimes, using robots to help push back other scientific frontiers. So you will not see any of its robots working in real factories.

Electrical engineers, psychologists, surgeons and more are working together creating robots of the future at the University of the West of England (UWE).

Robots: News About Them

The information above came from the BBC Website, which I visited after seeing the report on the opening of it on the 10th May 2012. It was on both the BBC and ITV News. We were introduced to a robot who said to the reporter that it would be doing her job. Her reaction was “Oh no, you won’t” and the spokesman agreed with her saying they were called it, not he or she.

The report mentions the director, Prof Chris Melhuish, who says the scientists at the lab come from 17 countries and have a range of specialisms. “As well as electrical engineers and mechanical engineers, which you’d expect, we’ve got microbiologists, neuroscientists, surgeons, even psychologists,” he says.

The site says to ask if you could use the information on it, so I did and can say that both the information and the graphics are used here with permission.

Robots: Where to Find Them

There are small robots and big ones; flying robots and swarming robots; even whiskery robots. The variety is astonishing, and the variety is the point of the place.

One of the links on the site was to the one put up by the Lab and one of the articles says:

“We use our sense of touch to interact with each other and with our environment. It has been said that of all the senses, if lost, touch has the most detrimental effect on a person’s quality of life. With the absence of a tactile sense, humans are no longer able to control objects, or even their own limbs, without significant visual feedback and effort, as well as losing the ability to meaningfully interact and communicate with each other physically. The sense of touch is an essential part of autonomous independent existence and has a significant role in emotional interaction between humans.

The mechanics of the fingertip skin, on both the macro and micro scale, have vital and often overlooked roles to play in our sense of touch. By exploiting some key features of the skin we aim to gain new tactile sensor designs that have the same high compliance needed to be highly sensitive and detailed tactile sensors and strength to be capable and versatile gripping and manipulating tools.
Fingertip design

The micro structure of the fingertip skin has specific functional features that have yet to be exploited in tactile sensor design. This research has developed a hypothesis of the functional morphology of the Dermal Papillae and the Meissner’s Corpuscles in creating an edge encoding of tactile information. This hypothesis determines that these skin features actually act as an edge filter to the tactile information we receive, before any neurophysiological processing. This ‘computational morphology’ is heavily dependent on the high compliance and strength of the fingertip skin macro structure.”

Robots: What Do They Do

On this theme the BBC article sayd that Dr Alex Lenz showed him “Bert, a robot who he has taught to pick up a metal leg from a table.”

“Get leg three”, he commands and Bert obeys. The robot sees the leg on the table in front of him and calculates a route to pick it up. Importantly, the leg can be anywhere. This is not a pre-programmed action, but a new manoeuvre worked out each time by the robot.
‘Do dull work’

Bert’s fist closes on the leg and he waits for another command. “Hand over,” Dr Lenz says. So Bert picks up the leg and offers it forward.

Dr Lenz says: “Bert can sense when you have taken the leg, and then he releases it automatically.”

For people, of course, this is child’s play. How often do you hand over a pen, a book, a cup of tea? But to create a robot that can interact like this is hugely complex.

Bert is built with electrical and mechanical engineering; linguistics and computer science; and a good dose of human psychology too.

Dr Lenz imagines that a small manufacturing facility, where hundreds of different products are made, would find a robot like Bert useful. Unlike a mass production line, such as a car plant, each task is slightly different.

“If you can teach this robot to help you, it can do the dull work alongside humans who do the smarter stuff.”

The Shrewbot, a robot that imitates shrew and rat whiskers The Shrewbot mimics a rat’s whiskers to find its way

Round the corner, twitching its way across the lab, I meet Dr Martin Pearson’s Shrewbot.

This robot scuttles across the floor, a battery of artificial whiskers flicking back and forth from its nose.

“He’s looking around the environment using his whiskers only,” Dr Pearson says. “He’s totally blind.”

As the whiskers touch the wall, or the lens of the camera, they feed back information to the robot’s computer, which acts accordingly. A slight touch and it turns and investigates more. A bump on the nose and Shrewbot turns tail.

“This is pure biology,” Dr Pearson says. “We’re really interested in how rats and shrews move their whiskers, what they can determine with their whiskers. And making our own has taught us a huge amount.”

There are projects like this everywhere in the lab. Tiny drones buzz round a flying arena, piloting themselves round hazards and towards targets. One day engineers will toss them into nuclear meltdowns to gather vital information from safety.
‘Wonderful fusion’

Prof Melhuish says the work in the lab is a “wonderful fusion of curiosity and technology”.

“Whenever someone gets a robot working for the first time, they tell us, and we stop what we’re doing to come and see.”

These are not the robots you see in factories repeatedly lifting, pulling, or painting. They seem more intelligent, more adaptable. But the scientists here are careful not to call them “he” or pretend they are more than machines.

As I say goodbye to Bert, I can’t resist that sci-fi question. “Could Bert become a robot butler?”

Dr Lenz smiles. “It might happen, and it might surprise me. But in the environment of everyday life, with so much going on, there’s a long way to go.” In other words robots will not be replacing humans any time soon, if ever.


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