Thursday, April 19, 2001
Orlando, FL--At the AeroSense symposium here, Tony
Stentz, associate director of the National Robotics Engineering Consortium at
the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA), described
developments underway using robots in heavy "outdoor" industrial applications.
These include construction, mining, agriculture, and materials handling, such as
cargo ship loading and unloading.
The automation provided by robotics, Stentz says, offers the opportunity for increasing productivity (speed of operation) and the quality of the work (from robotic precision), improving safety (not placing people in dangerous situations), and reducing cost (which includes maintenance). Lest ye Luddites reading this think, as I first did, that these robots would merely be a way to take jobs away from hard working folk to save a few bucks, Stentz noted that human operators would still be needed to monitor robotic systems. Humans would also be required to "teach" site-specific operations and position the robots to do repetitive operations. Robots excel at the latter with their speed and accuracy. Such an increase in productivity, he adds, must more than make up costwise for retaining the operator, otherwise adoption is doubtful.
The heavy-equipment robot use hinges on sensors and control algorithms now being developed to position equipment in precisely-controlled, quick operations. The "outdoor" environment is highly "unstructured," Stentz noted, requiring robust design to allow a large number of robot tasks to be done in all types of weather. But in the designers favor, he said, is the 80/20 rule, in that most of what needs to be done are fairly repetitive tasks. The remaining 20% would use operator skill and judgment to work or position the machine.
Stentz showed some prototypes being used in excavation, mine-face cutting, and tractor field operations. These used vision systems to guide operations, along with GPS for agricultural field work. He sees a phased adoption of these technologies, such as starting with intelligent cruise control in agriculture, with tractor operators still controlling turns at the end of field rows.