Ever since the invention of robots, there have been discussions about them replacing people. Decades ago, at the beginning of the industrialization age, there was resentment against machines that were designed specifically to take the jobs of unskilled workers. Although over the years many jobs were transformed by automation, one key characteristic of human employees has always given them an advantage over machines: their adaptability.
Nowadays, the public negative opinion against robots is generally put at rest. The democratization of robotics has now made it such that everyone, bosses and employees alike, can understand and leverage the benefits of robots in their work. Robots are now commonly used to automate tasks that people don't want to do anymore, sometimes simply because they are mind-numbingly boring, but also often to protect people from long-term or short-term injury. This is done in one of two ways: full automation and teleoperation. The most recent robots make use of the latest developments in artificial intelligence and other cutting edge technologies to become increasingly adaptable, enabling them to operate in unlikely, unstructured and inhospitable environments.
In this article, we will discuss four hazardous environments where robots have been introduced to accomplish tasks that would put human lives at risk. At the end of the day, robots are perfect for these jobs because they have one key characteristic that people are happy not to share: they are expendable.
Chemical and Nuclear Plants
In some industries, the main risk facing the staff does not come from the heavy machinery operating around them, but rather from the product that must be handled during the various processes of operation. In nuclear power plants, even short exposure to radioactive material can lead to severe consequences in the short and long term. In chemical plants, products can be volatile, toxic, flammable, explosive and even corrosive to a point that can become life-threatening after a merely few minutes.
Traditionally, those risks were managed by the use of personal protection equipment (PPE) as well as isolating the unsafe material. Although these methods were considered satisfying, they could never be 100 % effective, which is why professionals are now looking at using robots to remove the necessity for people to be in direct contact with these substances. Agile and collaborative robots are now used inside gloveboxes via teleoperation for manipulation1,2. There are also fully automated and isolated lab cells3 that can perform tasks that require fine manipulation.
Another way these industries can leverage the advantages of robots is for the maintenance of their facilities. Their installations can be extremely large and require regular inspection and cleaning for safety reasons. Sometimes this requires people to enter rooms or pieces of equipment that were in contact with large amounts of dangerous products, so some may still be left. Lightweight robots and mobile platforms have proven to be extremely valuable by allowing systematic and quantified inspection data to be acquired without having to expose someone to danger - nor the risk of human error4. There are also robots designed specifically for the maintenance of certain equipment, for example, mobile cleaners for chemical tanks5. Contrary to humans, these robots can be customized to be perfectly adapted to their environment, making them much less at risk to perform these kinds of tasks.
Opposite: SNC-Lavalin/Atkins' nuclear waste management mobile deployment system being inserted in a glovebox. Source: https://www.linkedin.com/posts/kinova_press-release-snc-lavalin-and-kinova-sign-activity-6691367326404624384-Q851 | https://www.snclavalin.com/~/media/Files/S/SNC-Lavalin/download-centre/en/technical-journals/snc-lavalin-technical-journal-volume-2-Issue1.pdf#page=64.
Civilian Emergency Services
Think of people you know who can be putting their life at risk regularly. You hear about people like these every day on the news. They are law enforcement, firefighters and, especially now in 2020, emergency medical staff like paramedics. Although the human aspect of their respective jobs can never be replaced, roboticists have developed technologies to help at least keep them a little safer. Bomb squads for example, instead of sending people in their goofy-looking explosion-proof suits, now have access to teleoperated mobile platforms equipped with agile robotic manipulators6. Then, in case something goes wrong, at least only replaceable hardware is lost. For firefighters, researchers developed fire-resistant robots that can be used to navigate burning buildings and interact a little with their environment7. These robots can be equipped with large arrays of sensors and provide life-saving information by scouting ahead.
Finally, the confinement situation of 2020 around the globe started to normalize the use of telemedicine. As many of us have experienced this year, being able to talk to any kind of therapist through a computer is much better than nothing and keeps everyone involved safe from infections. However, many interventions are still most effective when there is physical contact between the patient and the practitioner. Researchers in robotics had already worked on various rehabilitation devices8 to provide therapists with repeatable and quantifiable exercises and treatments, but now that telemedicine is becoming more mainstream, we may see a new generation of medical robots able to perform minor interventions like auscultation, drawing blood or sewing stitches under the supervision of remote medical experts.
Opposite: Northrop Grumman Remotec EOD mobile platform equipped with a Kinova Gen2 robotic arm. Simulation involving a suspicious package near a railway.
In 2011, a tsunami was the cause of a major accident in the nuclear power plant of Fukushima, Japan. Like when a similar catastrophe happened in Chernobyl 25 years earlier, massive destruction, environmental damage and death ensued. It appeared that even though time had passed and improvements were made, the world was still ill-equipped to handle the disaster relief in such a hazardous environment. In response to this was launched in 2015 the DARPA Robotics Challenge, now widely known in the robotics research community. The goal of this competition was to create robust robots able to do a variety of tasks in extremely hostile environments so that these could be teleoperated in the future instead of putting people in danger. Although most projects since then were not developed in the context of the DARPA challenge, this leads to a trend in robotic research to create robots for hostile environments.
There are now quadruped robots that can adapt to almost any kind of terrain9 These robots can provide invaluable help during the crisis by navigating and mapping the environment. Some of them are even equipped for rudimentary manipulation, enabling them to interact with the environment and use certain tools. Sensors mounted on the robots can provide critical information regarding the state of the surroundings, like radiation levels, temperature, the presence of toxic or flammable gas to ensure the safety of human resources10.
Opposite: Boston Dynamics four-legged mobile platform equipped with Kinova Gen3 lite robotic arm, a ROS-packaged solution offered by our partner Clearpath Robotics. Source: Clearpath Robotics and Kinova. Background picture by Harrison Haines on Pexels.
The premise of this article was to discuss places and environments that people would rather send robots in their place for their own safety, but space is admittedly a possible exception to this. Don't get it wrong; the vacuum of space is extremely dangerous for living beings. If we set aside the minor setback from the absence of oxygen, there are also considerations to have for the temperature that is near absolute zero, the radiation from the sun from which we are normally shielded by the earth's magnetic field and atmosphere, and finally the sheer vacuum which can turn water into vapour directly in your body. It is easy to see why robots are better suited for these conditions since they:
- Don't breathe
- Can be made radiation-resistant
- Can be sealed to remove negative pressure-related issues
- Can survive much colder temperatures
There are currently numerous robots in space accomplishing a wide variety of tasks ranging from the exploration of planets to maintenance of satellites11. A few honourable mentions among them include the Canadarm2, a 7 degree-of-freedom teleoperated robotic manipulator on the International Space Station (ISS) that is used to proceed to an inspection of shuttles and to dock unmanned vehicles to the station, and Curiosity, a rover autonomously doing research on Mars since 2012. Fun fact, Curiosity has a program that makes it sing Happy Birthday to itself every year, making it the first song ever played on Mars. Although these examples come from mostly publicly funded projects, there are still others developing new products12. The main goal of these researchers is to assess and fix the problems that await space robots before spending millions of dollars to send them to space. To sum things up, a lot of the current human activities in space can be performed safely by robotic arms and rovers, but people are still involved even when they understand the danger. Maybe the view is worth it.
Opposite: Lightweight Rover Unit (LRU) early concept by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). Source: https://www.dlr.de/rm/en/DesktopDefault.aspx/tabid-12531/21854_read-49997/gallery-1/gallery_read-Image.52.30217/ | https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/211561934.pdf
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