Lessons from Robots in the extreme future!

After years of pronouncements, robotics seems to be finally having its day. A convergence of data, communications, processing power, and mechanical innovations seems to be aligning the robotics industry to break through into everyday lives and work.

Small drones, like quadcopters, are becoming popular consumer products—forcing the FAA to make changes to its otherwise rigid airspace system.

Start-ups are popping up from young engineers eager to invent their way to ubiquity and fortune. Some warn of a dark future of killer robots pursuing their own agendas.

While I share some of this enthusiasm, as an engineer with field experience with autonomous systems I’m also aware that there are places where robots have already been at work for decades.

A robot autopilot named Elmer (after Elmer Sperry) flew bombers during World War II. Unmanned aircraft have been flying in combat since at least Vietnam.

We landed a robot on the moon two years before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Apollo 11. A small robot descended the grand staircase of the Titanicwreck in 1986.

Autonomous underwater vehicles have been routinely mapping the seafloor for at least twenty years.

What all these robots have in common is that they operate in extreme environments: places where humans cannot go without machine protection.

In undersea exploration, aviation, spaceflight, and warfare, operating robots in real environments has been a daily task for years, and in many cases decades.

If we squint our mind’s eyes just a bit, we can glean aspects of a robotic future from these cases. As we contemplate robots and autonomous vehicles proliferating into more daily environments like the home, or our daily automobile commutes, what can we learn from the use of robots in extreme environments?

  1. When robots work in the real world they usually end up with more human control than their designers envisioned. The Predator drone, for example, so prominent in the public imagination of robotic warfare, began as a fully unmanned reconnaissance vehicle. The designers neglected to put much thought into the user interface because the system was supposed to operate on its own. In fact, Predator is autonomous in only some of its basic flight controls, and is actually a highly human-integrated system, with multiple users directing the vehicle and consuming its data from many thousands of miles away.
  2. User innovation is essential in situating robots in real environments. Engineers should not think they understand a task entirely from the beginning, and must allow users to tweak, modify, and configure their systems.
  3. Robots don’t replace people one for one, so much as they move people around in space and time. The Mars Exploration mission rovers , which have roved the red planet for more than a decade, did not do any “exploration” by themselves. Rather, they enabled people on the ground to explore remotely. Even with the twenty-minute time delay to receive Martian data, NASA scientists developed a deep sense of presence, through the robots. The same holds for the New Horizons mission to Pluto. When thinking about a robot doing a task, do not think “unmanned,” but rather ask: Where are the people? What are they doing? When are they doing it? Robots shift people in space and time, and the implications of those shifts can be quite important.
  4. The highest form of technology is not full autonomy but deep, trusted, transparent collaboration. We can think of a spectrum of autonomy, with level one being fully manual (like riding a bicycle) and level ten being full autonomy, with no human involvement. People often assume that level ten is the highest and ultimate goal of technology. Actually, experience shows that level ten robots present. What’s truly challenging, and valuable, is the “perfect five”—transparent, trusted, reliable collaboration between people and machines. Situating robots within human environments (such as national airspace or highways) is a deep, multifaceted challenge, but is key to making robots work in the human world.

Much of the excitement in today’s robotics comes from research labs, or from far-out visionaries bent on foretelling the future. The enthusiasm is laudable and motivating, but should be tempered by what we’ve learned in the rough and tumble of extreme environments.

By: David Mindell
       CEO / Founder
       Humatics Corporation


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