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What is the future for robots that can sense the world?

A look at potential applications for robots with sensing capabilities.
Typically, one big use is within the filming industry. They’re a wonderful platform to get cameras into really interesting places, to get really fantastic different shots that people wouldn’t be used to seeing. They’re used a lot in building surveying, both new buildings - so as buildings are being constructed, you get a drone flyover maybe every week, and you can see the progress - but also looking at ageing assets. So, for example, bridges, buildings, and all kinds of things where you can send a drone up and you can get really close in view. And it’s much safer and much easier to do than sending up a guy on a rope, or building scaffolding, or everything like this.
So it lets you do that kind of inspection much more quickly. It also provides a really interesting platform for use in agriculture, because they can give a much better view of a farmer’s field, and give much more information to allow him to know how he needs to target his crops. For example, using different pesticides or weed killers, but also knowing if there’s any different infestation in any areas and how well his crops are actually growing as well. They’re actually just starting to look as well, talking agriculture, in the UK to start using drones to actually do precision spraying. So actually spraying fertilisers, or pesticides, or whatever, in precision areas.
This is already done over in China and throughout East Asia, but they’re looking at bringing some of those technologies into the UK quite soon as well. As they become more commonplace, what they’ll take over is, as we said, the difficult jobs, these kind of abseiling jobs, or scaffolding jobs, where you’re working at height or working in tough or difficult spaces. One of the big proposed uses of drones, particularly in the near future, is parcel delivery services. Amazon wish to release an Amazon Prime delivery service where a drone will actually deliver you your parcel from Amazon.
This kind of service is going to be difficult to implement in particularly congested areas because of the various regulations and the various regulating authorities that want to regulate how things are moved around. But we’ll start to see it much more in more remote locations. So, for example, people working in remote areas in places like Australia, it’s very easy to actually be able to fly out medical kits to them. Talk about delivering individual parcels, but what about autonomous cargo planes? So full-sized aircraft, effectively, flying around hundreds of tonnes of freight that don’t need pilots up front. The technology for that is very similar to the sort of stuff we’re developing in these very small drones here.
And this lets us get rid of all the bugs, effectively, in the small scale, and then scale it up going forward into the future. They are currently being used for things like search and rescue, for example. So lots of people who do drone surveys, and things like that, may also get involved with search and rescue tasks. The problem is, at the moment, you can only have one drone per pilot, because there is that really, really tight relationship in terms of the control. It’s very, very manual.
But again, developing going forward into the future, if you know that there’s a boat lost in a particular area, you may be able to send out 50 drones, which can cover the area much quicker than one manned aircraft or even one man with his drone. And the interesting thing about that is you’re not always necessarily bothered about getting all of those drones back, because they are unmanned, and if the costs can come down and everything, it doesn’t matter. If you can save ten people’s lives, it doesn’t matter if you lose two or three drones in the process.
Where self-driving technology is already in force is in farming and mining, and it’s being used quite extensively, particularly in Australia, where you have massive fields. But tractors can turn much, much more sharply with no driver. They can drive in an absolutely straight line using GPS navigation and do a field much quicker than a human, whether it’s pulling a combine harvester or just furrowing it for seeding, that kind of thing. The other one is mining.
And I just discovered this being on a chat show on Australian radio, where people called in, and they were miners from the north of Australia who said they’d lost their jobs because there are trucks that drive between the mine and where they have to take the goods completely on their own. They arrive, automatic machines load the truck, they take it to where they have to go, it’s automatically unloaded again. On the roads, and no people involved, except to supervise it.

This week, we’ve looked at some of the different types of robots that are being developed here at Sheffield to be able to sense the world around them. What applications will this technology have in the real world?

In this video, Owen and Jonathan discuss some of the industries that could benefit from drone technology in the near future. We’ll then hear from Noel Sharkey about some of the ways this technology is already being put to use.

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Building a Future with Robots

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