Domesticated Robotics?

By Mike Deliman

deliman_lg.jpgA discussion about robotics was started up in an online discussion forum.  A question was posed to the group:

Will unmanned vehicles eventually see duty in civilian applications?

Technology for unmanned military vehicles may eventually trickle down to commercial applications on Main Street. In the near future, autonomous vehicles will be used to deliver packages, collect garbage and fill potholes.

The way I read the question, it asks about unmanned "vehicles" in general.  Without specification I would regard this to include all autonomous robots, all sizes, all forms of motivation (wheels, legs, wings, whatever).

Part of my initial response was…

Given the increasing needs for communication points, bandwidth, and
the increasing desire for remote data sensing (think: telerobotic
tourism as an eventual end), it is an inevitability that unmanned
robotic vehicles will play a significant role in the commercial and
private sectors.

Expanding on this some, we are already seeing an expansion in domestic robotics.  Googling for "domestic robot" gets you nearly 58,000 hits!  There are devices covering from vacuums to "butlers" to sophisticated electronic teddy bears appearing in this fledgling market segment.

In the industrial sector, there are mining robots, deep sea robots, welders, archivists, pipe inspectors, and harmful-environments service robots.  Like the home PC market had in 1975, this market has some potential for growth. 

My instincts tell me the real question isn't "will there be unmanned vehicles [autonomous robotics] in civilian duty", but how will we best make use of the explosion of these devices, maximize their safety, provide some level of individual security for the owners/users, and … make it all work on limited power budgets.

Getting back to the need for connections, your local municipality may begin to employ remote service machines.  These machines may be used (as in the referenced article's question) to maintain the infrastructure, and perform communal duties of domestic maintenance.  These collections of robots will need data channels to convey back the results of their duties, nominal status, and report noted exceptions.  One could foresee a day when semi-intelligent autonomous systems might be used to augment domestic and emergency services personnel.

Could you imagine if your area had some natural disaster, and the local water provider were able to send robotic pipe inspectors through the system to listen for people trapped inside buildings?  Or perhaps your vacuum cleaner reporting that your apartment is on fire while you're on vacation, and which room is on fire?  Though either of these sound a little fantastic, both are easily feasible with today's technologies.  It could easily be done with a mix of a hypervisor and use of existing software on a low-power multicore platform, the rest of it is just batteries, motors, radios, and a fancy box.

The security side of it can come from a mix of approaches and disciplines, depending on what the intended goals of the platform are.  For instance, you don't want intercepted pipe inspection data used wrongly (for industrial espionage, for instance), so the sensor feedback channels could require some form of encryption or pre-processing.

Larger systems / devices might require some form of review by certification agencies.

I don't think it's a question – will there be more unmanned gizmos working for us?  It's a certainty I think, just a mater of time.  I'm wondering how long until they want counted in the census…