Dull, Dirty, Dangerous, and Often the Only Option

The recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico put the spotlight on the use of robots in deep-sea operations. It was immediately evident from the video posted on the web that remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and other robots were at the center of attempts to contain the spill. As with most commercial robotics applications, the task at hand certainly fits the criteria of dull, dirty, or dangerous. Moreover, in this working environment, robots are the only option. Miles below the surface of the gulf, humans are unable to interact directly with the containment equipment.

As with the US DoD’s Predator pilots, the operators of the ROVs sit comfortably in an air-conditioned command room. And like the large drones, the ROVs aren’t something that can fit in your living room – think large truck. Fly-by-wire interfaces enable operators to operate the hydraulic manipulators and aim cameras at various areas of the leak.

Daily footage of the spill area also underscores the current status of robotics. Modern ROVs might be sophisticated, powerful machines, capable of operating at great depths, but even with a human calling the shots, they’re not invincible. And just because ROVs allow an operator to be virtually present doesn’t mean that a quick fix is possible. If a skilled human operator can’t use an ROV to stop the leak, imagine how an AI would respond to the situation. Clearly, we’re not to the point commonly depicted in Sci-Fi movies where robots autonomously handle the routine chores around the house or space ship, repair holes caused by meteor damage, and other disasters.

Remotely operated robots — while not as sexy as the self-aware androids of the movies — are where the action is in practical robotics. And, not surprisingly, the capabilities of remotely operated robots, whether in the battlefield or operating room, are a direct function of the skills of the operator. For example, if you find yourself a candidate for robotic surgery, better check the record of the surgeon. Just because he or she uses a robot instead of directly manipulating a scalpel doesn’t guarantee you a better outcome. As studies have shown, results of robotic surgery — in terms of recovery time and number of complications — can be significantly greater than with traditional surgery if there’s a klutz at the controls. It turns out that there is a practical benefit from spending all those hours playing video games.

Onto a related subject, if you’re a regular reader of my editorials, you know that I keep tabs on the bleeding edge of robotics R&D by following the quarterly DoD SBIR grant program (http://www.dodsbir.net). The most intriguing title this round is ‘Hands-Free and Heads-Up Control of Unmanned Ground Vehicles,” put forward by the US Army. It’s a little too close to Avatar for my taste. The object of the funding is to develop a system for controlling an unmanned ground vehicle without requiring the use of the operator’s hands, while allowing the operator to maintain situational awareness of his surroundings and that of the robot. The DoD solicitation lists brain-computer-interface (BCI), eye tracking, sub-vocalization, and speech as allowable user interfaces. Check out this and other opportunities on the DoD website.  SV

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