The search for robots does not always end with finding discrete autonomous actors. The picture is more complex. In March, I travelled 7 hours West to visit the Open Day at Rio Tinto’s copper mine at Northparkes NSW (near Parkes) on March 2 2013. This visit was an opportunity to experience and understand some of the robots and other actors around the robots. These actors smoothed and accelerated the movement of ore from 600m underground to the surface, onto stockpiles, and finally on train to the ports.
Among the robotic actors on this site was the Loader Hauler Dumper (LHD) from Swedish manufacturer Sandvik. This vehicle is a hybrid operated / autonomous / remote operated rock mover. It is a robot that navigates its load from draw points deep underground, and brings it nearer the surface for crushing and refining.
As it turns out, the LHD is only one among many kinds of robot actor, changing the mine’s technological shape. Mining is slowly changing from being a series of discrete tasks by different actors. Each smoothing works towards turning the mine into a continuous process with greater ongoing measurement and control, in the name of efficiency (continuous mining is on the long-term agenda for many miners).
The story is not that the mine contains robots — it is the whole mine itself that is becoming robotic. More and more components afford remote sensing, feedback and continuous control. Surveillant components (cameras, sensors, robot mounted cameras and so on), offer miners various kinds of agency that bring into play more consistency in managing control flows. The flow of crushed copper ore takes the ore to the stockpile measures the ore as it passes on a weightometer.
The conveyor belt takes crushed ore to the stockpile
Beyond the Northparkes itself, Rio Tinto has an eye to the future. In the Pilbara WA, it has introduced the enormous robotic dump trucks, autonomous drills, and soon autonomous trains. The robotic mine of the future is being built one component at a time, motivated by deeper ambitions of efficiency and control. For now, miners’ bodies and minds remain the dominant actors in most mining practices. The inspiration for efficiency in the ‘Mine of the Future’ operates as a present guiding vision as both internal mantra and PR rhetoric.
The vision of a mine without humans on site is, perhaps, compelling for many. Certainly it allows management to control. Many workers prefer the conditions of remote operations and control centres. Some external observers see the value of this change. Human bodies are clearly outside their element when digging up elements. Bodies are inherently vulnerable in underground environments, and in the presence of massive machinery and explosives. Safety is the mine’s ubiquitous guiding force. Miners’ flouro jackets and safety helmets are a uniform for those avoiding risk.
The body’s capacities to complete tasks repeatedly, and precisely, are also limited, in comparison with many emerging devices. However, the introduction of new devices is quite uneven. On the site, hi-tech gear sits alongside traditional tools. The mine uses up-to-date monitoring systems alongside a tag board at the mine entrance. Each miner must post their tag onto the appropriate spot on the Surface Tag Board when they go underground. Until all the tags are accounted for, there will be no blasting.
Safety serves a double role, imposing control over risky situations, and justifying greater control over miners’ actions. At one level, mining control regimes are undoubtedly justified by the high level of risk. An accident in this mine in 2003 killed four workers (Hebblewhite 2003). On the other hand, Danger is management’s collaborator, justifying tighter control over the workforce. The logic of the safety / surveillance pair is gradually bringing to mine sites a regime of control (Deleuze 1992). Remote systems, feedback, and constant training of workers is less the mode of surveillance from outside, and more control over thresholds of movement.
The risk of deviance is tripled when the possibility of surveillance, the actual risky environment, and the technologies placing the worker under control combine. Control displaces and reconfigures the labouring body for as long as it takes to remove the bodies from risks. When explosives are involved there is no option but to remove the workers bodies from the the location.
Dynamite is a 150 year-old technology that introduced non-human force of explosives to reduce hand-digging. The technique of block cave mining used at NorthParkes is an efficient (but not particularly safe) technique that uses explosives to create massive rockfalls underground. These funnel the fractured ore into draw-points, leaving the ore exposed, but in the dangerous location under rockfall.
The showcase of the site is the Sandvik Automine LH514ELHD: a bright orange vehicle with a large scoop at the front. The vehicle can be controlled remotely from the surface. It also features laser scanners and intelligence that allow it to take control of the vehicle to follow a trail towards the surface. This remote-controlled and autonomous system was considered a trail-blazing implementation in 2010. These new technologies remove operators people from the most dangerous places, and returns them to a more controlled environment.
Becoming the load in a Sandvik Loader Hauler Digger (LHD).
The robotic components: laser scanners guide this robot vehicle by following dead-reckoning tags deep underground, guiding the LHD.
This installation at Northparkes is strategically important for the Swedish company that produces this vehicle. The Australian mining environment is dominated by Caterpillar. It is also part of rapid changes in mining that are withdrawing human bodies, and into control rooms. These are changing the profile of workers, and possibly jettisoning those who don’t have the right profile of expertise.
Rio Tinto’s open day is itself a form of smoothing, building relationships, and removing the potential obstructions in public opinion or expectations of potential employees. Rio Tinto is very active in controlling perceptions of the company. They produce an array of reports, websites, media releases and videos. For example, ‘The Miracle of Copper‘ offers an award-winning, company friendly account of the processes of copper mining. Using the latest vehicles: LHDs and open days; training and public videos; websites and conference presentations — Rio is communicating the many of the values of Rio’s ‘Mine of the Future’. The company has extended their regimes of control away from disciplined secrecy (such as in Ok Tedi) and towards smoothed operations of PR and automation.
Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the Societies of Control. October, 59, 3–7. Hebblewhite, B. K. (2003). Northparkes Findings – The implications for geotechnical professionals in the mining industry, 1–8. (see links)
Rio Tinto (2010) ‘Ore processing’ Northparkes website http://www.northparkes.com.au/ore_processing.aspx
Here is the abstract for my paper at the 2012 Cultural Studies Association of Australia conference. I presented it on December 5, 2012.
Mining automation, displaced labour and materialities of communication
Digital Cultures, University of Sydney
Information systems, remote operation and robotics are currently being introduced into mines around the world. As miners reconfigure communication, control and labour, mining practices that have barely changed in a century are being transformed. This paper analyses innovations such as remote operation of mining, and autonomous systems as media changes, as well as changes in labour processes. The paper follows in reverse the historical arc of Harold Innis, who began in geographical economics (cod, fur, railways in Canada) before pioneering a materialist, longue durée historical media theory.
Mining is among the most basic material human practices. The blasting, loading, hauling, processing and shipping of iron ore is a rudimentary process performed on a huge scale. Digital systems don’t immediately change these material practices, but introduce new information and control flows. The autonomous Komatsu trucks now hauling ore in the Pilbara are little different physically from the human-driven fleet, but afford a precision, continuity, and smoothness of operation that human drivers could not tolerate. Digital media are valued in mining for their greater ‘efficiencies’, and their centralising and visualisation of monitoring and control of mine sites, which can be thousands of kilometres apart. These changes in machine/material communications and autonomy have implications for the kinds of work, the kinds of workers, and the kinds of communities that can cooperate with the mines, and many other workplaces, of the future.
Notes for Chris Chesher on ABC Northwest (Karratha)
September 3, 2012.
At 1030am I talked with Cristy-Lee Macqueen from ABC Northwest.
Mine sites are changing, as robotic technologies are taking on communication and control roles previously held by people. These changes have been coming for some time, but there has recently been a shift from trialling autonomous systems towards using them in production.
In 2008 the first autonomous trucks were first introduced experimentally, carrying waste products at Rio Tinto’s West Angelas mine. The trials seem to have been a success, as the five Komatsu autonomous trucks covered 570,000 kilometres over 897 days at work between them until February this year.
The old model: Komatsu 830 with human drivers.
In late 2011, the autonomous trucks were reassigned, entering the iron ore production process along with five new trucks, hauling ore at the Junction South East pit of Rio’s Yandicoogina mine.
These ten trucks will undoubtedly be joined by more new autonomous trucks. Rio Tinto reached an understanding with Komatsu in Novermber 2011 to buy 150 Komatsu Autonomous Haulage System trucks over the following four years. It’s not clear what the impact of the iron ore price slump will be on these acquisitions, or how they will fit into Rio’s overall processes.
Komatsu documents that these imposing trucks are fitted with a range of sensors that allow them to operate very safely and accurately. They use laser, radar, GPS, and communications systems to help follow a digital map of the mine site with a lot of precision. The trucks are coordinated by Rio’s control centre 1500 km away, in Perth.
In addition to these developments, Rio has committed over $400 million to automating trains over the next few years. Other parts of the mining process, such as drills, are being automated, or being tagged with location beacons.
Safety is one of the motivations for introducing autonomous systems. A driverless vehicle can’t injure the driver. Autonomous systems don’t have lapses in attention, or drive erratically.
Another reason is to increase production efficiency. Autonomous trucks don’t take breaks. They don’t need to work in shifts. Together, these autonomous systems can work towards the goal of continuous production, where the mine produces an uninterrupted stream of ore.
I’m an academic at the University of Sydney. I am here in Karratha trying to get a sense of how people in the Pibarra feel about the changes to mining work as mining automation is introduced. I’d appreciate if anyone with experience or opinions about mine automation to call in. I’m recording this program, and I’d like to use the transcript in my research. You can find more about my project on my blog http://followingrobots.wordpress.com
Whether these goals of safety and efficiency are achieved, it seems likely there will be changes to the experience of mining. It may affect the social life of mining towns.
To bring up a very different example, when mobile phones became available, they seemed at first to be just a phone you could carry around. In fact, they were quite different from fixed phones. They allowed people to change the way they organised their lives. Rather than make detailed arrangements ahead of time, people with mobiles could easily change plans at the last minute. With smart phones, people could make images and change them, making their own media.
Of course, an automated mine is very different from a community of mobile users. The control centre (opened in 2010) gathers detailed information across several mine sites, centralises control, and provides a place for collective expert decision-making. Remote operation allows operators to take over some stages of production, and allows a small number of people to control many machines. The mine site increasingly becomes a rationalised, controlled and regulated rock factory.
Advocates point to potential benefits of automation for workers. It can take away dangerous, dull and dirty work that nobody wants to do. Mine automation may reduce risks of injury and death. By reducing workers on site, it may reduce fly-in-fly-out work, allowing expert operators to work in urban control rooms. This may take social and economic pressure away from remote mining communities. See also BAEconomics Report.
But there are some potential draw-backs: some people may lose their jobs to autonomous systems, and these changes may raise industrial pressures. The high degree of control over mine sites may be extended to new expectations for those working alongside autonomous systems. The dependence on planned communications systems and GPS guided technology may bring some fragility to autonomous operations, in comparison to the more resilient and adaptable human operated systems.
The long term implications of large scale use of autonomous systems are yet to be revealed. As WA will soon host the largest fleet of autonomous mining vehicles in the world, the unanticipated implications, and the qualitative shifts in mining practices, are likely to play out here.
If you have experience or opinions about mining automation, please leave your comments below. I may use these comments in my research.
Recently I presented a paper called ‘Materialising robot platforms’ on the affordances, environments and networks of three Korean service robots. The topic of my paper was something of an outlier in a conference called ‘Platform Politics’ at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, organised by Jussi Parrika and Joss Hands.
Most other papers identified either with political theory and technology, or with platform studies: analysing how the underlying technological infrastructures play out in fostering certain social and political outcomes. My paper was closer to the latter category, examining in particular some of the political implications of technological artefacts: the placement of sensors and motors in robots that respond to touch, allow remote teaching, and bow to indicate subservience.
The conference was video recorded in a pretty rudimentary way using UStream. It is pretty hard to follow the paper from this video. The abstract is below (although of course this doesn’t really reflect what I talked about).
Chris Chesher Research and development in robotics is currently developing a range of network-connected material platforms. This practice is producing robots increasingly tuned towards particular lifeworlds: language teaching robots in classrooms; service robots in public spaces; container-handling robots in ports; rescue robots in earthquake zones, and so on. These specific platforms diverge significantly from the general-purpose robot of popular imagination as robots are made increasingly real as they are themselves formed by their multiple attachments across physical, social and institutional spaces. This paper draws on recent interviews with researchers at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, and company representatives at the Robotworld tradeshow in Korea. The interviews examine the rhetoric and practices by which robot platforms are increasingly blackboxed as technical innovations in ways that are informed by narratives of the application environments, and strategic connections with institutional networks. A robot platform is constituted by a singular combination of elements: sensors, operating systems, programming and effectors (motors, screens, speakers, etc). However, these components must work together towards creating a robot that can perform as an autonomous
actor in forming relations within specific environments. In talking about the robots, engineers, developers and salespeople often provide rich narratives featuring the robots in particular physical and social environments. Developers are also aware of the institutional connections in operation that will be crucial in securing the robot’s current and future existence. The Korean company Dasarobot’s English language teaching robot must capture the interest of teachers, but outside their direct affiliations with schools. Development communities are establishing core features of contenders for future robot platforms, abstracted below the level of particular applications. For example, many robots use similar autocharging systems to respond autonomously to the common problem of a low battery. Some robots use custom operating systems, while others use open source ROS such as those from Willow Garage and Microsoft. The range of issues in robotic platforms gives the problem of software platforms a material base, as seen in the collaborations and conflicts between key mechatronics disciplines of software engineering, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. Meanwhile, as robotic platforms stabilise, there are increasing enrolments of other disciplines: media art; media practice; performance; design; marketing; cinema and so on.
On Friday December 10, I suggested a new term for our field of research: Robotic Humanities, the deployment of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences traditions in field of robotics (see my slides). Of course this Robot/Arts intersection is not new at all, as Simon Penny will talk about this Friday.
Robotic Humanities was a term of abuse that critical theorist Theodor Adorno used describe the Analytic Philosophy, which started to dominate US philosophy in early chill of the cold war. He argued that robots could be taught to do this kind of philosophy. Adorno’s hostility marked a historic point as the division between narrative / critical and formal / logical traditions became stronger. The division persists in the Humanities today, making Robotic Humanities unlikely. A version of this divide persists in the differences between Humanities and Mechatronic approaches to robotics. Some differences may never be resolved: epistemological understandings about empiricism, quantification and history; political differences about social and institutional power; ethical differences about instrumentalism; aesthetic differences and , and so on.
In a shifting cultural terrain, these (apparently) irresolvable differences may actually be a basis for innovative collaborations. A range of Arts, Humanities and Social Science traditions have prima facie efficacy to build connections with robotic research: media, technology studies, performance studies, writing, media arts, philosophy, archaeology, ethnography and so on (see table below). My hunch is that the historical divergence of two broad traditions has created blind-spots in each that leave many problems unexplored. If robots is increasingly present in everyday life, Humanities traditions will be important in negotiating their cultural introduction.
The motivation for mobilising the term ‘Robotic Humanities’ was an invitation to speak at an event ‘Digital Editing, Digital Humanities’, organised by Mark Byron, a colleague in the English Department. Digital Humanities is a relatively new name for an expanded version of quite an old tradition of using digital technologies in literary scholarship. Such work includes literary scholars analysing stylistic patterns algorithmically to discover patterns in the words in a certain author’s work. Others scan in notebooks of great writers, marking up the author’s corrections and annotations to create digital editions. The best of this work finds biographical and creative insights through this process. For example, Margaret Webby presented an analysis of Patrick White’s notebooks to show a direct link between White’s criticisms on seeing Ray Lawler’s play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (which he describes as banal) and new confronting scenes he wrote for his own play The Ham Funeral.
I can’t imagine that Robotic Humanities will employ robots to conduct humanities research directly (although I can see robots involved in surveillant social science studies). Rather, Humanities researchers have competencies that may support collaborations with engineers, independent uses of robotic technologies, or critical attention to the practices of research and deployment of robotic technologies.
|Humanities Discipline||Examples of discipline’s relationship to robotics|
|Design||Interface design; hardware design|
|Media Practice||Draw on media practice expertise and media criticism in robotics|
|Technology Studies||Historical and observational studies of human-robot relations, etc|
|Ethnography||Thick description of robotic research and development promise to offer thick descriptions of the cultural practices around engineering of artefacts that have increasingly intimate relationships to people|
|Performance Studies||Understand staging robotic of presence, interaction and (in robotics parlance) ‘emotion’|
|Writing||Dialogue; interface; scripting|
|Media Arts||There is already a significant history in robotic art such as Nam June Paik’s (1965) Robot K-456 or Simon Penny’s Petit Mal (2006)|
|Archaeology||Robotic archaeologists scan, sites(http://americanarchaeologist.com/archives/2274 )|
Margaret Harris and Elizabeth Webby, ‘Patrick White’s Papers’, Australian Book Review, December 2010, pp. 62-4.
Lemahieu, M., 2002. Postwar Philosophies, Robotic Humanities. CLIO, 32(1), pp.51–61.
Simon Penny: 60 Years of Situated Machines – Robotic Art as a site for technical and aesthetic innovation, activism and intervention
Free Public Keynote Lecture. All welcome! Please feel free to distribute this invitation.
Professor Simon Penny (University of California, Irvine)
Presented by the Digital Cultures Program and the Centre for Social Robotics at the University of Sydney.
Time: 5:30-6:30pm, Thursday 16 December 2010
Venue: New Law Seminar Auditorium 101, University of Sydney
This keynote will attempt to provide a context for the assessment of the contemporary condition of robotic cultural practices by reviewing the history of the field and the history of pertinent ideas and debates. In particular, attention will be drawn to the context of ‘cultural robotics’ as a highly charged cross disciplinary test-environment in which platonist computationalist approaches confront phenomenological realities of being-in-the-world. In the context of doing robotics for other-than-instrumental purposes, the politics and pragmatics of paradigms of top-down control confront the performative and processual practices of the arts. Questions of material instantiation, structural coupling and machine sensing provoke the reconsideration of notions of (machine) intelligence according to post-cognitivist paradigms. Interventionist and activist practices as well as emerging neo-formalist sensibilities will be discussed. The presentation will be illustrated with images and video of relevant works.
Simon Penny has worked as an artist, theorist, teacher and organiser in Digital Cultural Practices, Embodied Interaction, Interactive and Robotic Art for 25 years. His works involve custom robotic and sensor systems including novel machine vision systems. His art and writing address critical issues arising around enactive and embodied interaction, informed by traditions of practice in the arts including sculpture, video-art, installation and performance, and by ethology, cognitive science, phenomenology, human-computer interaction, ubiquitous computing, robotics, critical theory, cultural studies, media studies and Science and Technology Studies. He founded the Arts Computation Engineering interdisciplinary graduate program (ACE) at University of California, Irvine. He was previously Professor of Art and Robotics at Carnegie Mellon.
This event is part of the Robot Cultures research initiative and Cultures of Robotics Symposium <www.robotcultures.org> organised by the Digital Cultures Program <http://sydney.edu.au/arts/digital_cultures> and the Centre for Social Robotics <http://www.csr.acfr.usyd.edu.au> at the University of Sydney.
Digital Cultures: Dr Kathy Cleland, Dr Chris Chesher and John Tonkin.
Centre for Social Robotics: Dr Mari Velonaki and Dr David Rye.
430pm November 11, 2o10, School of IT Building, University of Sydney.
In his final public spiel as Director of the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, Hugh Durrant-Whyte connected his personal motivations and values with his ambitious goals to create a successful research centre. ACFRS is the darling of Sydnovate, the awkwardly-named commercial arm of the University, which hosted Durrant-Whyte’s talk. Durrant-Whyte leaves ACFR at the end of the year to become CEO of National ICT Australia (NICTA).
Durrant-Whyte begins in a candid way by claiming that ‘We’re academics to have fun; and make money along the way’. His approach is casual self-confidence, making light of his sizable ambitions and achievements. He resists wearing a suit, and takes pride in not being able to drive (something that became a problem at least once in lacking an intuitive understanding of how vehicles drive).
He says he was first attracted to robots through science fiction. Using a taste for sci-fi to explain the personal motivations of roboticists is almost too easy, but this genre can’t be underestimated in its capacity to help generate gadget-building subjectivity. The fact that many of these sci fi narratives are dystopian warnings about the perils of future robots can’t compete with the ‘cool factor’ of the shiny fictional hardware it’s own autonomous will to become actual.
In his early work in the UK in the early 1990s, Durrant-Whyte attempted to solve problems of navigation and control. Once he moved to Australia, this problem would continue to drive his work on a much larger scale in loading ships and digging up ore in mines. The main advances since the early work, though, were in knowing how to frame engineering solutions that would be attractive to industries with problems robot systems might solve. And he saw Australia, with so much space, far from anywhere, as offering many of these attractive problems. It also has the advantage of more open airspace for UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and prettier oceans for marine robotics.
1. Define your expertise
Now and your future vision
2. Build the team
Motivation to have an impact
3. Try to be the best
Uniqueness; value to industry
Relevance to australia
4. Start small, and get bigger
At one point say, ‘I’ll do that report but it will cost $40k’
The big break for the ACFR came at a point of crisis on the waterfront, when Chris Corrigan was taking on the unions, says Durrant-Whyte. Captains of industry had long perceived the waterfront was holding the nation to ransom. I’ve wondered the extent to which port automation was a union-busting initiative, and how much it was an improvement in process.
By 2000 ACFR was able to demonstrate a multiple-million dollar laser-guided straddle carrier, which can pick up 3 shipping containers at one time. Durrant Whyte admits that the demo came close to running over Corrigan. This work resulted in a commercial spin-off and the development of an automated port in Brisbane in 2003. They had bridged ‘the chasm between research and application’ with 36 automated straddle carriers in Brisbane; run remotely from Sydney, now signed off from University.
The second example Durrant-Whyte gave was mine automation. ACFR’s early approaches proposed individual robots, but after more research they realized that the mining companies (and Rio Tinto) wanted to automate the entire process from discovering the minerals through getting them out of the ground and carting them away. The whole process, says Durrant-Whyte, centres on information, and systems that allow operators to have a complete picture of the state of the mine: ‘just like a video game’.
ACFR boasts alliances with other major players: US Army, US Air Force, BAE Systems (an innovative UAV project that crashed on its first flight); a spin-off company Marathon, secured a $57m contract with the US Marines for a system of robot-controlled targets, based on the Segue.
His strongest message is always to own your IP. It allows you to continue with the research (companies want to own it, but really only want the exclusive rights to use it). Publish after patenting. Write down what you’re going to do (avoid requirements creep). Manage expectations. Universities are not a charities for cheap research. Limit what you promise and stage your projects.
Mining is going to dominate robotics in Australia and world wide. There will be more flying robotics for the environment (such as helicopters that can spot weeds and blast them. Look for social robotics and aged care.
Robots are cool and fun.
These categories are somewhat loose. I have annotated the photos with company names and weblinks where I have been able to trace them down.
Which robots will be culturally and economically viable? There is no easy answer to this question. Wandering around Robotworld for three days gave only some indications. There was such a wide range of robots on show — tiny robots for surgery to enormous industrial robots — caring robots for emotional attachment, and armed security robots for killing people. There are robots to rescue from collapsed buildings, and robots to serve, robots as toys and as teachers.
Robotworld is an annual trade show that ran from October 28-31 in 2010, at the exhibition centre KINTEX on the outskirts of Seoul, South Korea. This is the fifth year of the event, which is hosted by the Korean Ministry of the Knowledge Economy. The exhibits stretched in six columns from the Hyundai industrial robots dancing at the entrance to the Robot Stage at the far end of the pavilion.
Much of what was on display exhibited a mixture of speculation, government support and hope. Among a couple of hundred robots on display, the minority were production models. Even many of those in production couldn’t yet claim to be making money. This lack of shipping products was true not only of the impressive displays of Universities and research institutes (KIST, Gyeongnam Technopark, KITECH, ETRI, ), but also for large corporations such as SK Telecom, which partnered with a number of smaller robotic companies to show five robotic prototypes.
The level of industry organisation and government support in Korea, Taiwan (and Japan) was apparent in the presence of exhibits like Korea Association of Robotics Industry, and the Robotics Association Taiwan (ROBOAT).
The exceptions that prove the rule are the Industrial robots (Hyundai), inspection robots (Koh Young Technology), Samsung’s security robots (see the promotional video by Samsung Techwin, Hanool, ), parts manufacturers (KAES, Narym, NES & TEC, DMP, HIWIN, LNC, LS Mecapion, Shayang Te Ind, ), and special purpose robots such as fire-support (HOYAROBOT, Dongil Field Robot).
Toy robots, such as the dearly departed Sony AIBO (1999-2006), and the still dancing dog Genibo built by the Korean company Dasabot are among the most visible robots with (relatively) solid markets among early adopters. These are strategic investments in mindshare, to give robot brands some cultural presence and familiarity.
There is a large market for kit robots, with four or five companies represented at the show (Robomart, RoboRobo, Robotmart). The kits promise educational value, and are particularly popular in the context of competitions where teams of mainly high school students build robots that fight, deliver gifts, navigate through mazes, and so on.
Another display, popular towards the end of the day, was Dae Kyung Ing’s massage chairs.
It’s hard to define robotics as a cohesive field, as the range of applications is very broad. Many of the areas of application seem unproven. Most robots feature that classic cybernetic circuit of sensors and effectors: a capacity to sense the world, and then to act in the world on the basis of that sensory information, but they range from small toys to towering monoliths. Autonomous robots become oriented and continue to operate without any human intervention. There are also telepresence robots controlled by a remote operator who, for whatever reason cannot be physically there.
Another robotic genre found in schools is the educational service robot, which performs as a teachers’ aid in classrooms, in childcare centres or in homes. Currently in development at KIST are telepresence robots: in which a distant teacher’s face appears in the screen that forms the robot’s face. This is important for Korea in getting access to English teachers in the Philippines, for example. Yujin Robot (builders of the Ubiquitous Network Robot iRobiQ) demonstrated their new Robosem classroom robot.
Hunarobo’s fish robot was the most surprising and compelling of robots at Robotworld 2010. Running Bluetooth and RF, it can be controlled remotely, or operate autonomously. It can be programmed to follow a sequence or actions (forward, left, up, down), and respond to its environment.
At the ACFR there are regular presentations from visitors, academics and students. The first I saw was from Swiss engineer Franziska Ullrich, who presented work she had done to design an optimal Mars Rover that could take on the hostile, rocky, alien environment of an exhibit at the Powerhouse Museum.
Her approach was to drive a simulated model vehicle within a specified virtual environment (without hills above a certain pitch angle or rocks above a certain size), and measure how it performed. She changed the design and ran the simulation again to see if that design improved the vehicle’s performance: making the wheels bigger, changing the suspension, and so on. The design needs to distribute the weight of the load evenly across the wheels, making sure the wheels keep traction.
Rather than keep changing the design herself, though, Ullrich uses a genetic algorithm to try out many different permutations across the space – that is, the abstract mathematical space that maps out all possible combinations in the design. Using an approach ‘based on Darwin’s theory of evolution’, the simulator introduces random mutations for each generation. After each simulation the system selects the ‘fittest’ designs, according to the optimal design features, and abandons the designs that proved less fit. Over 100 generations, taking 3-4 hours of computing time, she improved the design by 28%.
This quite complex technical process of rocker-bogie optimisation also invokes some powerful cultural resources of storytelling and metaphor. The process of optimisation presents a story of improving the design towards some kind of perfection, with an accelerated natural selection process as the metaphorical plot path. It draws on Darwinian narratives, with their connotations of scientific legitimacy to the approach (a technique exploited most extensively by the Santa Fe Institute).
But this is a post-human design process in which the unmanned vehicle is impelled to rove alone through alternating vacuums of simulation: Mars and museum space. In which ever of these environments, it must be autonomous. The lonely rover must be able to right itself if it falls over. It must be the fittest to survive.