autonomous robots and engineering

With autonomous robots on the rise, what do engineers need to know?

By | Preparing the next generation | No Comments

As collaborative robots give way to autonomous ones, the future is not as frightening as you might think, says Professor Elizabeth Croft, presenter at the World Engineers Convention.

When her daughter came home with a textbook that said robots are designed by ‘scientists’, Professor Elizabeth Croft was very surprised. Most of the driving force behind robot technology and capability is coming from engineers, she said.

“I had a bit of a fit when I saw what the textbook said. I told my daughter, ‘No, actually, engineering is pushing the forefronts of robotics. Science, art and design all contribute and help us to think about it, but the engineering part is what allows us to continue to innovate,” said Croft, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Monash University.

When Croft talks about the future of robotics, she’s not discussing the manned ‘collaborative’ machines that, for instance, help people on an assembly line to lift engine blocks into car bodies and that switch off when their operator is absent. She means fully autonomous robots.

“Collaborative robots, or ‘cobots’, were passive in the sense that they would not act unless the operator put motive force into them,” she said. They were very safe because they were not autonomous. If the operator did not touch the cobot’s controls, it would stop.

“Where we’ve moved is to a place where now we have autonomous robots that are independent agents, such as delivery robots, robots operating as assistants, etc.,” she said.

“This is the area that I focus on: robots that bring you something. Maybe they hand you a tool. Maybe they carry out parts of an operation that are common in a workplace. We’re interested in collaborating with those agents.”

These autonomous robots are different from cobots, Croft said, because they have their own agenda and their own intent. They are not tele-operated, and they are not activated or deactivated. They have their own jobs, just like people in the workplace. They need no permission to operate.

It’s in this area that Croft works, in the space where rules of engagement have to be figured out. Several major issues are slowing things down right now, such as questions around liability and safety frameworks. Also, how does the front-end work, or how do humans interact with the robot? How do they tell it what they want it to do? If voice operation is key, then we’re clearly not there yet, judging by the voice interactions with our smartphones.

And what about social and ethical impacts of technology in society? These are powerful, autonomous systems that are being developed, so how and where should boundaries be drawn to ensure Skynet doesn’t send a cyborg assassin to kill Sarah Connor?

“The underlying programming and bounding of how much autonomy those systems have really impacts what consequences can happen,” Croft said.

“So, it is very important that students of this technology think about ethical frameworks in the context of programming frameworks. Ethics must underlie the basic design and concepts around how an autonomous system operates. That needs to be part of the fundamental coding, part of the training of an engineer.”

Reducing complication

In order to tone down the Terminator imagery, Croft offers an example of how an autonomous robot might change workflow for the better.

When you buy a piece of furniture from IKEA, the instructions contain a small picture of a man and look friendly, but they’re actually quite complicated. There are numerous pieces, many just a little bit different to each other. Some are very small, some are very large, some are flexible. The assembly requires dexterity and making of choices about what must be done in what order. Constant close inspection is a must because of the numerous dependencies.

Professor Elizabeth Croft

Professor Elizabeth Croft.

“This job cannot be fully automated because it’s too expensive,” she said.

“But there are parts of that operation where it would make a lot of sense to have more automation or assistance involved.”

Such technology is very close to reality right now, but we don’t have the legal and other frameworks to make it fully operational.

“We’ve come to a place where people can grab onto a robot, move it around, show it an operation, then press a button and the robot does it,” Croft said.

“But because of legal issues, liability and occupational health and safety, there are risks that need to be managed. There are issues around getting the person and the robot to come together in a workspace in a safe way. Who’s responsible? When the operator is always in charge, then there’s no doubt. But when the operator has no longer got their hand on the big red button, then there is risk.”

Who assumes that risk? In Europe, Croft said, the risk is assumed mainly by the manufacturer of the robot, which creates a challenge for innovation. In North America, the risk is often assumed by the person or company that owns the robot. In other jurisdictions, the risk could be assumed by the worker who is using the robot.

Swapping robots with humans

Outside of the legal framework, the biggest issue is actually the workflow itself. On a typical production line for instance, if one worker can’t do a job, another is brought in to take their place. People are quickly interchangeable. The same needs to be true of a robot being replaced by a human. If the robot breaks down, the business can’t stop operating. So, humans and robots must be easily swapped in and out.

There also needs to be a clear understanding of the value being offered by the robot, to ensure the worker is comfortable to work with the robot. And the worker must feel that the robot understands what they do, too.

“It will become a greater and greater requirement for educators of people working in software engineering or computer engineering to create a real understanding of the impacts  – ethically, socially, environmentally – of the designs they create,” Croft said.

“We’ll need professionals interested in public policy and engineers with a strong ethical framework. The engineers are creating the future of technology. We are the ones who first see the potential impacts. If we don’t prepare our people for that, we’ll see unintended consequences of the technology.”

Elizabeth Croft will be speaking about how engineers can set the agenda for future technology implementation at the upcoming World Engineers Convention. To learn more and to register, click here

Agricultural robots will help farmers feed the world – and do it sustainably

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Agricultural robots could address productivity and labour demands on farms, as well as help farmers operate more sustainably.

Professor Salah Sukkarieh’s work at the University of Sydney’s world-leading Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) has taken in automated stevedoring, aerospace, mining, farming and more.

Sukkarieh is best known for his work on agricultural robotics, which has earned him honours that include a nomination for the 2019 New South Wales Australian of the Year and the CSIRO Eureka Prize in 2017.

Agricultural robotics offer a highly promising set of technologies that seem on the cusp of adoption on farms.

“I’d never been a specific industry person; I’ve always just been interested in systems engineering, together with, when it’s possible, field robotics,” Sukkarieh told create of his work on ‘agbots’, which began early this century with weed identification using drones.

“I have been doing a lot of agricultural robotics work, but simultaneously I did some work for Qantas and I’ve been doing work in mining. But yes, the main focus is agriculture; that’s where a lot of the action is at the moment now, to try and see how we can help the farmers.”

Salah Sukkarieh with agbot Ladybird, which can check on the health of crops.

Sukkarieh was Director of the ACFR’s research and innovation efforts — a constant push and pull of development, application, then further development based on how technology performs with industrial partners — from 2007 to 2018.

Part of the reason he stepped down from the role last year was to step up his efforts to bring agricultural robots to commercial reality.

Home on the range

This nearly market-ready concept of ‘smart farming’ will be a part of the World Engineers Convention (WEC) 2019 this 20-22 November, at which Sukkarieh will present.

WEC 2019 focuses on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and smart farming fits with one of six themes at the event: ‘Engineering for Humanity’.

Helping farmers and, in turn, helping feed a global population that is estimated to reach almost 9.7 billion by 2050 is a goal of increasingly sophisticated farming methods.

According to the ACFR, the technology drive began with sensing on farms, followed by the application of data analytics, decision-making software, and eventually — driven by increasingly powerful computation — the real-time use of data necessary for field robotics to be used.

Growing season

The farming sector has a set of difficulties to overcome. Farm workers have an average age of 56 in Australia, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. End customers and therefore supermarkets and grocers are demanding perfect fruit. There is a shortage of available labour.

And there is a need to operate more sustainably. Sustainably grown food is something of a passion for Sukkarieh.

“I think there’s something in me that likes and wants to focus on how do we help the environment and how do we help the stewards of the environment, which are the farmers,” he said.

“Robotics are going to see reduced chemical use as well as help them optimise their use of things like planning for weeds and so forth.”

One recent project that will assist greater sustainability is SwagBot.

SwagBot is a four-wheeled, solar-powered robot able to navigate undulating terrain and obstacles such as logs.

It can be remote-controlled by a person or go through a pre-set route while applying collision avoidance algorithms and GPS.

It originated as a low-cost vehicle for smallholder farmers, funded by a three-year philanthropic donation and a one-year grant from Meat and Livestock Australia, a repeat collaborator with the ACFR.

It can tackle problems in grazer farms like weeding, tracking animal health through various sensors, and collecting soil samples.

“We started looking for new sensors, new machine-learning techniques, new types of robotics, to be able to do weeding based on a small sampling basis,” Sukkarieh said.

“We’ve done all that in the last few years.”

Being able to cut down on herbicide use through mechanical or precision spot weeding is appealing for both cost-saving and sustainability reasons.

Having a solar-powered robot for precision farming would mean fewer emissions from spent diesel from the distribution of agrochemicals.

Besides the sustainability and productivity gains that smart farming offers, it also promises a move away from chasing economies of scale.

Instead of bigger machines and more chemicals, having robots and data available at the plant level shifts the focus away from commoditisation.

Asked if he sees an expectation for engineers to deliver more sustainable solutions, whether for a farm or elsewhere, Sukkarieh said yes.

“I don’t think we’re getting much of an option, because I think everyone realises the urgency given our finite resources,” he said.

“I think there’s a growing awareness of and an effort to understand what sustainability means, both in engineering and in general. And so I think that has become important and I think there’s more awareness.”

Field and sky

Sukkarieh’s work has relevance beyond land-bound applications. A concept study for Qantas on efficient flight planning has grown into a major project between the carrier and the ACFR.

The eventual results will be rolled out over the course of this year.

Named Constellation, the system builds on path-planning work on drones, picking the best possible route based on parameters like weather and traffic flow.

“It dawned on us that we could improve the flight planning using mathematical optimisation and deep-learning techniques, as well as path planning algorithms that we could maybe develop to give you more efficient routes,” Sukkarieh said.

“If you have more efficient routes, then you also use less fossil fuels and also emit less carbon into the air.”

The five-year project on Constellation began with five research fellows. Over time, the team grew to 15 at the ACFR, with roughly the same number contributing at Qantas.

The system picks an optimal solution using millions of data points, considering the best path, speed and altitude for flight, and operating within safety and other constraints.

It produces a ‘cost map’ at the end. According to an article in The Sydney Morning Herald from December 2018, the subtle changes suggested by the system could save nearly a percentage point on fuel, representing $40 million based on Qantas’s annual bill.

‘Engineering for Humanity’ is one of the themes at the World Engineers Convention (WEC) 2019, 20-22 November in Melbourne.