|PhD student Shaukat Asidi, Mary Anne Williams and PR2.|
'Think of your most tedious household cleaning task. Now think about never having to do it again,'' exhorts the US robotics company iRobot on its website.
For $US500 you can buy the Roomba 770 vacuum cleaning robot made by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spin-off company. But why would you do that when you can buy much the same thing locally from Robomaid Australia for $400?
The robotic future is here.
Online you can order household robots to wash your floors and scoop your gutters and clean your swimming pool. This week, an Israeli company claimed a world first in performing robot-guided brain surgery. Around the world, robots are integrated into factories. In the West Angelas iron mine in the Pilbara, Rio Tinto is running robotic drill rigs remotely from Perth, hauling ore with driverless trucks and soon, with driverless trains. The Port of Brisbane is operated largely by robots, monitored from Sydney.
''Ten years ago, robots were knocking on our doorstep. Now they have invaded,'' says Professor Mary-Anne Williams, director of the innovation and enterprise research laboratory at the University of Technology, Sydney.
UTS's Magic Lab is the proud owner of a PR2 from Willow Garage in the US. It is using the robot for research into co-robotics, jargon for human-robot interactions, which is the next big thing in robot development. Most industrial robots are not safe to be around, Williams says. Because they have difficulty recognising and responding to the presence of humans, they have to be confined to work cells off limits to people.
But leaps in sensing and vision technologies are making robots sensitive to co-workers.
''The new vision, the next generation, is for people working side by side with robots,'' Williams says. The PR2, one of about 50 of its kind in the world, can stop and back off if it runs into someone. It can high-five. It can hug.
Melbourne industrial cutting equipment maker Sutton Tools has been using Japanese-made FANUC robots to move components on and off processing lines around its factories in Australia and New Zealand for the past five years.
The chief engineering executive, Phillip Xuereb, says a machine integrated with the robot system achieves a 40 per cent efficiency gain compared with one without.
Obvious advantages they have over humans is that they don't get tired, bored or sick.
''They are very well accepted by the employees because it makes their job more efficient and takes away the dull and boring part of the operations,'' Xuereb says.
The 95-year-old company employing 450 people and about 40 robots has not retrenched anyone as a result of taking on robots, but ''we have been able to add more equipment without having to add more people to the operation as we grow''.
Manufacturing equipment supplier John Hart Pty Ltd has been the Australian distributor for FANUC for 25 years. The Japanese company has just built a second factory to keep up with the demand, says John Hart's operations manager of automation and robotics, Simon Hales. Because they are made in large volumes, and because they can be adapted for different purposes, robots are ''quite attractive'' in price compared with customised machinery, he says.
With robotics systems now more intelligent, able to make decisions for themselves, more flexible and more adaptable, most clients are ''quite surprised'' to learn that ''for a lot of applications, you could probably spend $20,000 to $40,000 and have a robot that will do the job for you'', Hales says.
Barack Obama has his share of nicknames but ''Robama'' can be added to the list since he announced a robot-led renaissance of US manufacturing last June. Of the $US500 million to kick-start smart manufacturing, $70 million would go to robotics projects, the President said after touring a robotics facility in Pittsburgh. Until now, US robotics has been focused on defence industries, Europe has concentrated on manufacturing and Japan has taken the lead in developing humanoid robots for the service industry, particularly aged care.
Panasonic has prototype hair washing, food serving and dish washing robots.
Australia, though, is clear world leader in field robotics, says Hugh Durrant-Whyte, the chief executive of National ICT Australia and a leader of Australian robotics research. With its ''big empty spaces'', Australia is ''probably … the best place in the world to do robots'', he says, citing mining, cargo handling, marine and maritime, defence and agricultural applications.
It is industry wisdom that robots add best value on tasks that are ''dull, dirty and dangerous'', says Salah Sukkarieh, a professor of robotics and intelligent systems at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney. But research in which he is involved shows widening applications as robots become better able to interpret and interact with changing environments.
Unmanned aerial vehicles are being used to map locations of specific weeds across large land areas then deliver targeted payloads of insecticide. They are being used to monitor locust movement and track the endangered swift parrot. Horticulture Australia is funding research into using robots to monitor fruit tree health and count potential yields. Eventually, when they can be taught to recognise ripeness and pick without fruit damage, robots may be used for harvesting, Sukkarieh says.
Australia also does world leading research in the field of compliance, says Dr Matthew Dunbabin, the president of the Australian Robotics and Automation Association and principal research scientist at the CSIRO Information and Communication Technologies Centre.
Using robots to collect and analyse data for assessing compliance with regulations is ''gaining incredible traction'' among governments and companies, Dunbabin says. His CSIRO work, for example, involves robot measurement of carbon sequestration for use in greenhouse gas accounting. Robots can go around forests and measure tree diameters to provide estimates of how much carbon is captured there.
Robotic boats can go around water storage facilities to detect and measure emissions of gases.
Australia's competitive advantage will lie in teaming its world leading researchers with companies and industries that need the technology and using the results to insert itself in overseas markets, argues Durrant-Whyte. ''The real money is in running the automated terminal in the Port of Brisbane more efficiently than anyone else in the world,'' he says, as an example.
Professor Roy Green agrees. He is a member of the Prime Minister's manufacturing taskforce, which is preparing a report to the government on the way forward. ''It would be great to think that we were a centre for robotics manufacturing but it is unlikely to be the case,'' he says.
Australia is more likely to play an important part in the global robot supply chain, in the design and implementation of robotics systems and in the design of components and business models, says Green, who is the dean of the school of business at UTS.
Xuereb, 67, who has been in tool manufacturing for 32 years, has no qualms about a robot-led future. ''I think they are fantastic,'' he says. ''I think it is just a normal progression of Australian manufacturing.''