Autonomy and Robotic Advancement

By Mike Deliman

Deliman_lgA few months ago at the Robotics Virtual Trade Show, in my presentation I spoke about the evolution of robotic systems.  One thing I predicted was as time goes on, robots will become more independent and autonomous, performing more of the work humans and mainframe-style systems have traditionally performed.  

Among the robots I talked about were robots similar to NASA's 
Stardust Spacecraft  Stardust is currently on course for a Valentine's Day rendezvous with Comet Temple-1.  Stardust includes a package that performs autonomous navigation, d to help keep the craft on it's flight path with reduced intrusion from ground-based systems.  Since Stardust is so far out from earth, there is significant delay in round-trip communications.  Stardust is able to detect problems in trajectory and perform course correction maneuvers on its own.

Last week, Northrop Grumman had  first-flight for an evolution in Un-maned Aerial Vehicles.  The 
X47B UCAS   is an autonomous unmanned flight system.  It is not a wireless-joystick system.  It flies itself, taking off, figuring a course to it's way points, landing.  Without human intervention.

This, in general, is the trend of the robotic future.  There will be more "robots" in all sectors, the robots will become more autonomous, and perform more of the work regarding their duties than in the past.

In general a robot is an artificial entity that performs work for humans.  I broaden this definition to include telepresence systems (telerobotic surgeons, astronauts, and systems like aercams on the ISS), and lifestyle assistants (products such as drobo, tivo, and roomba).  My thoughts are that these consumer systems are both cutting edge, and primitive.

They are cutting edge in that they do some pretty incredible things in comparison with competing products that were available at the times these were invented.  They also pushed conventional wisdom about engineering and marketing, and created some cool and popular products.  They are primitive when you consider what technologies are available and how they could be used to upgrade these devices, and how these technologies will evolve over the next 5 years.  If you think about DVR boxes, you can get new DVRs from many makers,  yet used TiVos sell for over $200!  It's because TiVo can use the programming you record to automagically select other programs to record for you.  It anticipates and adapts based on your habits.  This capability differentiates it from other DVRs.  It does more work for you than others do.

This trend of more intelligence and autonomy will eventually blend its way into everything from automotive products to tourism.  It could lead to smarter cars that can detect when the driver's attention is lapsing or alert that it is unsafe to pass due to oncoming traffic.  There may someday be a system of telepresence pods anywhere on earth or even in orbit, where you could schedule a short vacation and experience a different world just by putting on a special helmet and gloves.  With such systems you could control a telerobotic diver and explore a sunken wreck, then change connections and view the Earth and stars from orbit… Possibly even while driving home from work. 

Such systems require many things to make real, among them is vision and technology.  With the proper technology your vision may be wrought into reality.  WindRiver is proud to be involved with programs like NASA/JPL's Stardust and Northrop Grumman's X47 UCAS.  Congratulations to X47B on successful first flight, and Stardust's upcoming Valentine's day rendezvous.