Robot revolution gathers pace

Robots have become part of our everyday lives, but there are more developments to come, as Peter Jackson reports.

Imagine a robot with human feel and sensitivity in its hands, so that its grip can be controlled.

That’s no longer the stuff of science fiction, North Yorkshire company Peratech has developed the robonaut for Nasa which can do just that.

It used Quantum Tunnelling Composites, QTCs, a new composition of matter produced by combining polymers and metallic particles, which are set to have a revolutionary impact on the development of robotics.

QTCs can bring touch sensitivity to robotics through their ability to give a proportional response to pressure, changing their electrical resistance from a true insulator of one trillion ohms down to less than one ohm.

Not only that: QTCs will stand up to temperatures of 300 degrees centigrade. They are tough as well as extremely sensitive and can be made as solids, powders, coatings or inks.

In fact, QTCs can be made sensitive enough to detect the passage of air, or even sound.

Robots made with QTC sensitive skins will be alert to human proximity and therefore safe to work with.

The technology could also be employed in developing prosthetics for humans.

This is futuristic but robots have been around for some time. Already robots are used throughout the automotive sector in the North East. Tallent Automotive Ltd-Gestamp Automocion in Newton Aycliffe had 450 robot applications on site as long as three years ago, predominantly in welding functions.

In the region’s automotive industry they are also used with high precision machines, for painting, for loading and unloading parts and for laser applications. They can operate in hostile environments which would present severe health and safety challenges.

A major advantage of robots, explains one industry expert, is their cost effectiveness, the cost of robots having fallen significantly in the past 20 years, particularly in relation to the cost of labour.

“Now we can get a return on capital on our robot, probably well inside 12 months, so it’s very easy to justify robot applications,’’ he says. “They are reliable: we can get 98% to 99% up-time off a robot; they don’t take breaks, they turn up on time and they don’t get stuck in snow.’’

However, that spares can be expensive so maintenance is important.

But one should not only expect to encounter developments in robotics in traditional areas of manufacturing.

UK Haptics, for example, makes 3D virtual reality training software for the medical sector, using Haptics technology, a force feedback technology within a computing environment.

The firm’ virtual reality software provides a sophisticated 3D virtual reality simulation of a hand and uses the kind of technology commonly found in computer games to help medical students learn and practice new techniques.

The technology uses “haptic feedback”, which involves sending physical sensations back to the user – giving them the impression of operating on a real hand.

UK Haptics has used this technology to develop tools for training in the fitting of contraceptive coils and in the giving of epidurals.

Gary and Sue Todd created UK Haptics in 2004 to develop a prototype virtual reality training simulator for clinical practitioners to practise venepuncture and IV procedures. They wanted to explore how emerging technologies could provide a better more realistic learning experience within medical and clinical training for the NHS and beyond while reducing costs, improving training and patient outcomes.

The prototype training simulator evolved into Virtual Veins which allows nurses to train in venepuncture in a 3D virtual environment receiving real-time feedback on performance.

The products described above, which represent only the tip of the robotics iceberg, are increasingly becoming an accepted part of life in their various sectors, even commonplace.

The whole field of robotics is reaching critical mass and is on the edge of a great step change, where science fiction is increasingly becoming science fact.

Robotics will transform our lives and therefore will, of necessity transform industry and business.