Some say robots are cool, while others call them scary. However they appear to everyday people, one thing is certain: robots have come a long way from just being a popular subject of science fiction to a rapidly evolving presence in our world. In October 2000, Honda debuted the famous ASIMO robot and, since then, there has been no looking back. The robotics world is vast and moving fast. The perception of robots is changing and expectations are growing every day with regard to almost every way in which these intelligent machines perform tasks, ranging from cleaning to surgery. However, there are still huge gaps between the world’s need and robots’ capabilities. Below are some, but not all of the important breakthroughs Tractica would like to see in specific areas to ensure that the evolution of robots keeps pace with their potential.
Robots are expected to work tirelessly for hours, producing precise results around the clock. Certainly, they need to maintain sufficient levels of power and batteries are currently the most commonly used power source. These range from lead acid batteries to silver cadmium batteries. However, battery science has not been able to keep up with the rate of growth of the devices that depend on batteries. For example, consumer drones use lithium ion batteries, which are possibly the best available option in the market, but these batteries are still heavy, expensive, and have limited capacity. The battery issue is so compelling that it is creating a whole new set of opportunities for hundreds of research & development (R&D) labs and companies working to create super compact, less expensive, and more efficient batteries. And not just scientists and startups are working on improving battery life; big companies like Google, Apple, Samsung, and Tesla are all in the race to improve current batteries and to create new ones. The future of robots cannot just rely on existing power sources, so the new generation of high-energy density batteries that includes lithium air breathing, gold nanowire, solid state lithium ion, fuel cell, solid-state batteries, etc., along with alternative energy sources and wireless charging, might be a way forward.
Robots need to be successful in the dynamic workplaces or living spaces specifically designed for modern human requirements, therefore it is important that robots have a highly accurate sensing capability. Sensors allow robots to receive information about changes in the environment, safety or malfunction warnings, and real-time tasks being performed. The most commonly used sensors in robots are computer vision, tactile, proximity, lidar, radar, and sonar. Sensor technology is developing pretty fast. Just 10 years ago, robots could not even sense simple objects independently, but within a few years, they started sensing complex objects. Certainly, the performance of sensors has improved tremendously, along with a drop in their price, but a lot of challenges remain for sensors in the fast changing human-robot environment. Tractica expects several breakthroughs to take place in the sensing technology within the next few years. On one hand, the online libraries of information, such as Robo Brain and deep learning for image recognition, would advance the field of computer vision, while on the other hand, on-chip lidar systems that are smaller, lighter, and cheaper than lidar systems currently available on the market could revolutionize robot sensing, opening up robots to numerous new applications.
Robots need to manipulate simple to complex objects by picking up, modifying, destroying, or otherwise having an effect on them. Within the controlled environment of a factory setting, robots can manipulate known objects with heroic feats like lifting super massive objects, moving with stunning speed, and repeating complex performances with perfect precision. But when it comes to performing even average manipulation tasks in everyday, constantly changing living environments, such as fetching a glass of water, most robots fail at the task or are too slow or inefficient. Robots might be today’s heroes in an ultra-modern factory, but they certainly do not perform as well in home or dynamic living space settings with a number of challenging characteristics beyond the control of the robot’s creator. Tractica believes that without advances in robot manipulation, many promising robotic applications will not be possible. There have been some attempts to bring collaborative robots or co-bots designed for industrial applications to home settings, but most of these are still a subject matter of user acceptance and further research. Tractica is expecting interesting developments to happen in the field, including tactile intelligence for grasping, electroadhesion grasping, biomimetic anthropomorphic robotic hands, bio-inspired manipulators, and extremely low-energy robot arms, which might improve the robot’s flexibility and increase the range of object manipulation.
Tractica believes that breakthroughs in the fields of power sources, sensing, and manipulation are required for the present crop of robots to continue forward progress. These are still nascent areas of research, but ones that we expect to grow very rapidly in the coming years.