The recent EmTech Asia conference gave us a glimpse of the future of robotics and bionics.
When one thinks of robots today, Hollywood images of Ultron (from Avengers: Age of Ultron), BB-8 (from Star Wars: The Force Awakens) or the Japanese icon Doraemon spring to mind.
But the reality remains that autonomous robots like these are well beyond the horizon, at least for now, said Professor Oh Jun-Ho, the director of Humanoid Robot Research Centre at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (Kaist).
Speaking to delegates at the EmTech Asia conference in Singapore, Prof Oh related how many advanced robots participating in the recent DARPA Robotics Challenge in California had difficulty manoeuvring around some of the basic obstacles that these robots would have to face while assisting first responders in an actual disaster.
In the challenge, the robots had to drive to the disaster scene, exit the vehicle on their own, remove obstacles, climb stairs, open valves and handle power tools with minimal input from their human controllers who would be operating with low wireless connectivity.
Of the 23 teams from around the world which took part, 20 were unable to complete all the tasks with several robots freezing up or simply tipping over. The eventual winner taking US$2 million in prize money went to Prof Oh’s Team Kaist.
Launched in response to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the goal of the DARPA Robotics Challenge is to accelerate progress in robotics and develop robots with sufficient dexterity and robustness to enter areas too dangerous for people and mitigate the impact of natural or man-made disasters.
“Operating in a very low bandwidth environment at about 2.4kps proved to be very challenging for the operators with a single image from the robot taking a minute to be relayed to its handler. Humans would probably take about a minute and a half to complete the entire challenge but the fastest robot took just under 45 minutes.”
Responding to questions at the conference, Prof Oh said walking and balancing especially in an unstable environment along with object recognition in cluttered disaster scenes remain difficult issues which robotic technology still needs to overcome.
But while humanoid robots still have a way to go, soft wearable robotic solutions are already making a difference in helping the disabled said Assistant Professor Raye Chen-Hua Yeow from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the National University of Singapore.
He was one of the top 10 young Innovators under the age of 35 honoured at the EmTech Asia conference.
His invention, the EsoGlove, helps patients with injuries or nerve-related conditions such as stroke and muscular dystrophy to regain some hand function. “Besides helping out with rehabilitative exercises, the EsoGlove is equipped with technology that can detect and interpret muscle signals to assist patients in daily activities like guiding the fingers to hold a cup.”
After use, the EsoGlove can be washed, folded and kept away just like any other piece of clothing. His research team from NUS has filed a patent for EsoGlove, and will start a spin-off company to commercialise the device.
The team has also developed the EsoSock which helps with exercises to improve blood circulation in the lower limbs and a device which inflates to prevent wrist fractures in a fall.
Other emerging technology in the field of robotics are designed to assist people such as construction workers, nurses and soldiers in lifting and carrying heavy objects, said Mr Homayoon Kazerooni, director at the Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Lab.
He said in the US, back and knee problems from repetitive stress were the two most common injuries affecting workers.
His company SuitX has developed several types of wearable exoskeletons with actuators to take away some of the effort and pain from their human hosts in executing these laborious often strenuous tasks.
“Oftentimes people have to bend over or kneel at unnatural angles for a prolonged period of time while lifting heavy loads. The exoskeleton reduces the contact forces on the back and knees and decreases the risk of injury. These devices can also be able to help the disabled with neurological disorders support themselves and walk,” he said.
The company wants to produce lighter and cheaper robotic devices and where possible, develop the technology to harvest the kinetic energy of the users’ own movement to power them.
So look out, Iron Man!