Entering the new age of robotics

The project aims to develop the next generation of robots

In a laboratory in Edinburgh a disembodied pair of robotic legs is walking my way.

This is not just a bit of gee-whizzery. It could represent the future of artificial limbs.

It's research that is now part of Robotarium, a project bringing together Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt universities. Backed by more than £6m of UK government funding, it represents potentially world-beating technology.

Given that we now have robots that can walk, crawl, swim, fly and do the vacuuming, are we entering the Age of the Robot? Professor David Lane of Heriot-Watt smiles. That question is years out of date.

"Robots are crucial to manufacturing," he says. "The car that you drive around in was built by a robot. So I think the age of the robots is already here.

"What we're on the verge of is new kinds of service robots that have greater levels of capability to work independently from direct supervision from a human operator."

Robots that think for themselves? Welcome to what Professor Sethu Vijayakumar says is a new age.

Robot hand holding cup Robotic hand replacements could soon allow users to "feel" when the artificial fingers have made contact

"We're getting into a new era of robotics where robots need to work much more closely with humans and interact with humans," he says.

"There's new science required for that. There's new infrastructure and hardware required for that.

"And Robotarium is our effort at getting this going."

The potential spinoffs lie in areas like health, security, defence and manufacturing. But many of these new generation robots are unlikely to look like they do in the movies.

'Cutting the cable'

Hundreds of people who have lost a hand are already using advanced robotic replacements made by the Scottish firm Touch Bionics. The hands can pick up, manipulate and put down everyday objects with great accuracy and delicacy.

But in Professor Vijayakumar's laboratory they're working to give them another quality - touch.

A robot challenges Kenneth Macdonald to a game of Connect 4

By sending signals from sensors in the artificial fingertips to an array of small vibrating pads, the user will be able to "feel" that the artificial fingers have made contact.

Robotarium will attempt to draw on the strengths of each university's research to create a larger whole. And while Edinburgh's robots have so far stayed on dry land, Heriot-Watt's devices tend not to mind getting wet.

One such robot is Remus. It looks for all the world like a yellow torpedo but its intentions are peaceful. It's designed to carry out underwater surveys of objects like offshore pipelines.

It's not joined to the surface by an umbilical cable. It operates autonomously. It's been given the power to think for itself.

"When we want to build robots that work in the ocean, and we want to have them there for long periods of time, it's a bit difficult to have an umbilical cable," Professor Lane says.

"We have no choice. We have to give the robot some level of decision making so it can decide what to do."

So while some sci-fi writers and film makers will no doubt continue to envisage a dystopian future where thinking robots overthrow their masters, at the Robotarium they're looking ahead to autonomous machines that'll be a lot less scary but every bit as exciting.

Professor Vijayakumar thinks we are on the verge of the robotics revolution.

"If you think back to where personal computers were fifteen, twenty years ago - now everybody carries a little personal computer in their pockets," he says.

"So the hope and ambition is that robots are going to get to that stage where we're really going to get personalised robotics."

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