Move over R2D2 – robots are no longer just the stuff of sci-fi. They’re already here, and whether it’s through advancing drug design or charting the oceans, UK technology is transforming the impact that robots are having on our lives.
At STFC, we’re helping to develop robots that can combat world hunger and explore the universe. Our research is driving forward the field and pushing the boundaries of what robots can do. Meanwhile, a whole variety of other UK-funded research is developing robots for use in medicine, disaster relief, deep sea exploration and so much more.
Robots are helping us to achieve incredible things, and they’re changing the world around us in ways that nobody – not even George Lucas himself – could have predicted.
Over a billion people worldwide depend on agriculture for their livelihood; meanwhile, almost 800 million suffer from chronic malnourishment.
But as technology advances, we are finding new ways of improving agricultural production, and shielding farmers and consumers from the very real consequences of a failed harvest. AgriRover is a robot on wheels, complete with a mechanical arm and soil sensing equipment.
Funded by STFC, the endearing little bot was built using technology designed for Mars rovers. Back on Earth, AgriRover acts as a mobile testing facility, to help scientists monitor the quality of soil. With this level of in-depth information, farmers are better equipped to counteract the environmental impact of farming and improve crop yields.
From the depths of the oceans to outer space, robots are helping us to explore far-flung corners of the world. Picture a robot with 24 arms; now imagine it attached to one of the world’s most powerful telescopes in Chile’s Atacama Desert.
This is KMOS (K-Band Multi Object Spectrometer): an STFC-funded robot that is helping us to investigate hidden corners of the universe. The robot’s many arms can be positioned to sense light emitted by distant galaxies, and using thermal signalling, KMOS can help scientists to study these galaxies more quickly and effectively than ever before.
This next-generation robot brings research times down from years to months, and the data it gathers could help us to find out more about the beginnings of the universe, and the origins of stars and galaxies billions of light years away.
As well as exploring the vastness of space, robots could also help us to investigate some of the sub-microscopic phenomena that underpin life on Earth. Based at the University of Manchester and supported by BBSRC, Eve is a robot scientist that recently helped to discover a potential new drug to fight tropical diseases, such as malaria.
When scientists are looking for a new medical drug, they often have to sift through hundreds of thousands of chemical compounds before they find a substance that has a positive medical effect. This process can sometimes take years, or even decades, and it is highly labour intensive.
But now, scientists have developed a robotic colleague capable of screening ten thousand compounds a day in the search for potential drug candidates. Eve uses artificial intelligence to learn which compounds have the highest chances of success, whilst screening out those that are toxic to cells or risk harmful side-effects. Thanks to robots like Eve, the future of drug design could be quicker, cheaper and easier than ever before.
Robots come in many shapes and sizes, from mammoth aircraft drones to nanorobots smaller than a grain of salt. But perhaps the most intriguing type of robot is the humanoid: an automaton that looks and behaves in an identifiably human way.
Humanoid robots have had some interesting depictions in popular culture. But forget everything you learned from the Terminator movies, real-life humanoid robots actually have the power to improve lives and support the development of vulnerable children.
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that autistic children benefit from the presence of robotic ‘buddies’ in the classroom. Robotics could eventually become present in all schools, but the benefits are particularly pronounced amongst students with autism.
This may be because children with autism appear to show an increased preference for computers and technology. At an ESRC-funded trial in Birmingham, autistic children demonstrated an improved ability to engage and focus with humanoid robots. More research is needed, but it’s thought that robot buddies could eventually be deployed more broadly to help aid children’s development.
Of course, not all robots are cute and cuddly – many look more like a dentist’s tool than a toy, but these un-glamourous machines can also change lives. Take medical robotics, for example. We’re increasingly seeing robots exploited to carry out challenging surgical operations, and potentially saving lives in the process.
Keyhole surgery is an extremely complex procedure, performed by inserting elongated instruments into small cuts in the body. Surgeons then observe what they’re doing using an endoscopic camera. This technique can allow surgeons to access hard-to-reach areas and the smaller incisions mean quicker recovery times for patients. But keyhole surgery isn’t always a preferred option, because the precise and delicate movements are profoundly challenging to perform.
However, robots could help to make this technique easier and safer. The University of Leeds is reviewing the results of an MRC-funded worldwide trial exploring the use of robotic assistance in keyhole surgery. The trial has focussed on surgeries to remove bowel cancer: a procedure that involves removing tumours through the abdominal wall.
With robotic tools, surgeons can operate from a few feet away, using magnified video and a set of controls. Results from the Leeds trial are expected to be published later this year and, if positive, we could see the procedure introduced in hospitals around the world.
Robots are also helping us to address a more creeping, long-term health problem. Approximately 47 million people are currently suffering from dementia, and that figure is set to almost triple to 132 million by 2050.
Treatments for this potentially debilitating condition are improving, but there is currently no cure. And so alternative technologies could have an important role to play in helping some dementia patients retain their independence.
Advances in robotics are supporting the development of high-tech robotic hands, capable of diverse movements. The artificial hands are becoming more and more lifelike, using software and algorithms to create natural responses and seamless movement. Supported by Innovate UK, the Shadow Dexterous Hand offers 20 different movements, and makes independent decisions about how to pick up, grip and release objects.
This innovation benefits individuals who have lost limbs, but it is also significant for dementia patients. Dementia can affect mobility, leading to a loss of confidence and reduced independence. But with access to advanced robotics, early-stage dementia patients can continue to pick up and handle objects, allowing them to retain their independence for longer.
Healthcare isn’t the only field in which robots are changing lives. Scientists are currently exploring the potential applications for robotic technology to support victims of natural disasters.
In the wake of catastrophic events like earthquakes and floods, disaster zones can become virtually inaccessible on foot. In recent years, drones have been used to deliver food and supplies, but they may be able to do even more in future.
EPSRC-funded scientists from Imperial College are now considering whether drones could be used to both construct and deliver temporary shelters for disaster victims, using additive manufacturing.
Also known as 3D printing, additive manufacturing is carried out by machines that are programmed to construct materials layer by layer based on digitally coded instructions. Additive manufacturing machines are already used on some building sites to ‘print’ items for use in construction – these items can range from small-scale parts to entire houses.
Scientists are now considering whether it’s possible to combine drone technology with additive manufacturing technology printing to create flying mini-factories. Whilst this work is still in its early stages, scientists hope that drones might one day be able to 3D print and deliver temporary shelters for survivors in disaster situations.
Robots are used in a myriad of fascinating ways, but perhaps one of the most exciting applications of advanced robotics is in research. A staggering 95% of the world’s oceans remain unexplored. It is simply too difficult, dangerous and costly for scientists to fully investigate the deep sea; but for robots, it’s a different story.
We now have robots that can survive thousands of metres under water, under pressures that would be deadly to any human being. Using advanced optics and data collection, scientists can use these robots to study the ocean ecosystem in unprecedented detail.
This is particularly useful to climate research. Thanks to funding from NERC, marine robots are helping scientists to study evidence of climate change in the Arctic Ocean. The decline of sea ice is having a transformative impact on the Arctic’s ecosystem, and learning more about exactly how these changes are occurring could be instrumental to both predicting the future consequences of climate change and informing mitigating action.
Humanity has dreamed of automations for centuries. As far back as the Ancient Greeks, we’ve had stories of mechanical servants and artificial warriors. Although for millennia, they remained just that: stories.
But the robotic age is now well and truly upon us. In recent history, we’ve seen robots grow and evolve in many different directions – from medicine, to technology, to research. What was once solely the reserve of science fiction is now a reality. Truly, R2D2 would be proud.