When robots rule the world

When robots rule the world

The machines are coming to make our lives easier, and Thailand's emerging field of mechatronics experts are poised to take advantage.

Welcoming weary travellers to the Henn na Hotel in Sasebo, Nagasaki, demure robot receptionists that bow, smile, blink and converse are a sign of what’s to come. Fully staffed by a robotic concierge, cyber porters and automated cleaners, the Japanese hotel is a mechanised wonder.

PLUGGED IN: AIT’s Manukid Parnichkun believes Thailand has a bright future in robotics.

“I would have liked to have been the first guest,” said Asian Institute of Technology associate professor Manukid Parnichkun, reacting to news that a robot-run hotel opened its doors to human customers in July. Checking in to an inn “manned” by pretty, albeit eerie, humanoid front desk staff called “actroids” would confirm the roboticist’s long-held theory that direct human-robot interaction is not only possible, it is inevitable. And Thailand, he says, is well poised to embrace the dawn of the robot era.

“Robots are everywhere now, even though we don’t think about it or notice them,” he said, noting their ubiquity in high-end manufacturing and assembly, transportation and logistics.

Now, like never before, rapid technological advances are enabling machines to respond to their physical environment and interact with human beings at work, home and even at leisure.

The future might not be quite what has been imagined in the movies, as AIT is developing wheelchairs that can climb stairs, a librarian’s assistant that can collect books and a mechanical buffalo that take the back-breaking work out of farming. These are not the sleek machines of sci-fi — instead resembling tangled skeletons of metal, wires and cables — but they could revolutionise the way we live.

The robots come at a price. Making prototypes can cost anywhere from 100,000 to a million baht or more, which makes them prohibitively expensive and difficult to find buyers for. Mr Manukid said there was not yet a market to begin mass-producing robots, but he hopes Thailand will be able to commercialise its expertise in the next five years.

He sees an opening in industries where no man wants to tread — robots can do the jobs humans are reluctant to or cannot perform.

TO THE FUTURE

For University of Tokyo-trained Mr Manukid it’s an exciting time, and he points to robot-friendly Japan as a model for Thailand’s future. There, sophisticated robots are increasingly inching into the everyday economy, filling labour force gaps resulting from its rapidly ageing society.

Already, Japanese robots are being trialled to perform nursing functions like assisting the elderly to get out of bed. A world first, Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo recently employed a lifelike female android named Aiko Chihira as its information desk receptionist.

Robot technology is nothing new to Thailand. In 1993, broadcaster NHK invited Thai students to attend a robotics competition with assistance of the Technology Promotion Association (Thailand-Japan). Mr Manukid served as an adviser to that first group of students, and while their showing was far from exceptional — they had never studied robotics — it sparked an interest that has only blossomed.

Five years later Thai students finally brought home their first victory in the robot football competition. The following year, they also won the top prize in the snow fighter robot competition.

“When the Thai team finally beat the Japanese team, they started to look at Thailand differently,” Mr Manukid explained. “They were very surprised and impressed that we won our first competition, but when we won for the second time, they started to see our country as having high potential.”

After that, Thai professors who had specialised in robotic technology at universities abroad returned to teach in Thailand. Mr Manukid was one of them.

THE NEXT STEP

Sensing that Thailand had a bright future in the field of robotics, Mr Manukid established the Thai Robotics Society in 2000. Since then, interest in robots has grown and with it the number of students enrolling in mechatronics programmes, which are now offered at many universities.

The Thai Robotics Society has expanded its reach by conducting research and publishing an academic journal, while students are increasingly participating in robotics competitions both nationally and internationally.

But success in competitions can only take Thailand so far. “Our next step is to develop commercial robots,” Mr Manukid said.

“We have been quite successful in phase one, which is to make people know and understand more about how robots work. The real challenge now is advancing to the second phase, which is to commercialise this technology.”

Mr Manukid explained that as the world moved towards robotics, Thailand had to keep up.

CLOSER TO HUMAN

Stanford University’s Shakey robot was proclaimed the first “electronic person” in the 1960s, being able to analyse commands and reason about its actions. Later, the Unimate device famously poured a beer and sank a golf putt on American late night television. Automated devices have since been largely left to perform repetitive, laborious, dangerous and complex industrial tasks.

But now, world-leading thinkers like Oussama Khatib, a professor at Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, want robots living out in the open much closer to humans. Visiting Thailand late last year, Mr Khatib outlined his work on creating an interface between the cognitive abilities of a human being and the machine attributes of a robot.

The computer scientist specialises in exploring how humans’ complex biological structures can be mimicked, simulated and modelled for use in robotics.

“Our goals are to bring robots closer to humans,” he told an AIT auditorium of engineering students, who were listening to the scientist who wrote their textbooks.

Mr Khatib imagines anthropomorphic devices as social companions for the young and elderly, or as servers and labourers that “free us” from countless repetitive tasks and mundane work. “Today there is a revolution in which robots are moving to cooperate with humans and support exploration along with humans.”

Mr Manukid said Thai engineers had been successfully building robots for a long time, but many people remained unaware that such complicated machinery was being developed and built here. Most of the robots available in Thailand are used in factories to perform mindless functions.

“The reason that we only see Thai robots in factories is because the cost of building one is high. At this point, only the places that have mass production can afford to have robots,” he said.

Robots built by Thai engineers are primarily used for assembling or welding parts together, or moving heavy objects around. When talking about robots, it often conjures images of humanoid machines from Hollywood films. However the reality, at least for now, is often far more mundane — Mr Manukid explained that to be a robot, all that is required is a sensor, a preprogrammed chip which acts as the “brain”, and an actuator which allows the machine to move.

But rapid technological advancements means the stuff of science fiction is now closer to becoming reality.

PUT TO WORK

The most familiar and widely produced robots have come in the form of toys, such as Furby or Sony’s robotic dog Aibo, or vacuum machines that scurry around the house unassisted. However, robots are already in daily use for many Thais in roles we take for granted.

They have medical or military uses, but even the humble office printer has all the components necessary to qualify as a basic, first-generation robot.

In the creative lab of AIT, a large room is filled with prototype machines that look unfamiliar to the eye. But the researchers there are confident these creations of metal, silicon and wire will have practical applications in both heavy industry and households.

Already in use at three major hospitals in Thailand, the “rehabilitation robot” developed in the AIT lab, which resembles a modified treadmill, helps people walk and move their joints as they recover from serious injury or illness.

Mr Manukid and his team are also adding the final touches to an exoskeleton machine designed to aid paraplegics and the physically challenged.

The special suit, funded by the Thailand Centre of Excellent in Life Science, can be worn by patients in need of assisted physiotherapy to correct improper gait patterns.

The AIT professor’s latest brainchild is a transformable wheelchair-cum-stair climber. Mobility-challenged people would gain new-found freedom of movement by using the machine, he said.

Thai hospitals, as Mr Manukid sees it, are at the forefront of the robotic boom. He foresees them soon becoming fully-automated hives of activity for pilotless robots dispensing medications to patients arriving in Thailand for high-quality, affordable care.

AIT is also planning the launch of a “smart library”, which will feature the country’s first robotic librarian assistant capable of removing piles of books from messy tables and taking them to a sorting station. The preprogrammed robot was designed by the students of AIT and is already operational.

Self-balancing wheels and bicycles are also at the AIT lab. Mr Manukid said the facility is “famous for making unbalanced things balanced”. The self-balancing bicycle even won AIT’s BicyRobo competition for its ability to navigate a course without any direct human interaction.

Researchers are feverishly investigating the positive societal impact of robots. Tailor-made robotic applications for SMEs and key sectors like health care and agriculture offer huge promise, Mr Manukid said.

Indeed, positioned as an important manufacturing node in the global supply chain, Thailand is already a player in the robotics field, topping the 2011 table of countries in Southeast Asia, with more than 13,000 industrial robots in operation, and 25 machines used per 10,000 industry employees, according to the International Federation of Robots.

“In the not-so-distant future, we will start to see robots become part of our world. They will replace human labour in all industries and it will make our lives much easier,” Mr Manukid predicted.

GROWING MOVEMENT

In some areas, that is already happening. For many Thais, agriculture — particularly rice farming — remains their primary source of income. But it is physically demanding work, and requires a large labour force, while the imprecise nature of planting makes for significant waste and jeopardises quality.

Mongkol Ekpanyapong of AIT believes Thailand, as a major food exporter, can benefit greatly from automation in the agricultural sector. He has developed a rice farming robot capable of dutifully plying paddies to sow seeds in a way he said is far more efficient than regular flesh-and-bone farmers.

“Robofarmer” uses a pneumatic control system that distributes rice seeds in even increments, dictating the distance between each seed as well as the overall amount distributed. The prototype self-navigates fields using a sensor fusion technique which combines integrated GPS, an electronic compass, a gyroscope and encoders supervised by a microcontroller.

Rolling out the device for an inspection by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the robot’s inventor said rice farming machines can alleviate labour force shortages found in the domestic agricultural sector, and in other developing countries.

“Our robot can dramatically reduce a farmer’s overall workload through increased precision,” Mr Mongkol said. As evidence, he conducted pilot tests that showed the device planting just 1.5kg of rice seed per rai of land. Traditional human methods would normally see about 25kg of seed planted per rai.

While he said the yield may differ, the machine was able to optimise its planting pattern to provide the ideal balance between yield and quality.

The Robofarmer began its life as a master’s degree thesis topic. But when Mr Mongkol saw the concept, he knew immediately that it had the potential to be more than just an idea. He and the students worked together to build a functioning prototype, which was attached to a tractor and put to work.

The machine itself consists of a large container which feeds into tubes below. The tubes will drip the seeds at a consistent rate. It takes an hour for the machine to plant a single field — slightly slower than its human counterparts. But it never tires, and the perfect increments at which the rice is planted — rather than the usual random scattering of seed — means the crop is given ideal growing conditions.

After winning several awards, the Robofarmer has been tested on real rice fields with positive results. AIT has produced 10 of the machines which will be given to rice farmers in different provinces.

EYES ON THE ROAD

The rise of robots is not just about heavy lifting. In the field of surveillance and law enforcement there is also enormous potential.

After returning from a long stint in the US, Mr Mongkol said he became frustrated by the driving habits of Bangkok motorists. He noticed they would frequently cut into his lane, and that their impatience only contributed to the gridlock.

Mr Mongkol wanted to do something to encourage more discipline on the roads. His solution was a “smart camera” which uses motion sensors to detect traffic infringements and send tickets directly to the offender’s home — adding the extra advantage of cutting down on “tea money” bribes to traffic police.

The cameras can monitor red light infringements, illegal lane changes, speeding and traffic accidents. They are linked directly to a police command centre where they can be monitored all day long.

New technology is now being developed to broaden the reach of the smart camera. With new software being written by Mr Mongkol, the camera will soon be able to detect unusual human activity such as fighting, someone falling to the ground, robberies and fire.

The cameras will also be equipped with facial recognition software and be able to count the number of people in a particular area.

“We are now at a point where we have the resources to take what seems impossible and make it possible,” Mr Mongkol said. “Robots will take over and make our lives easier. It’s only a matter of time.”

ONE STEP AT A TIME: Above and right the ‘rehabilitation robot’ helps people walk and move their joints as they recover from serious injury or illness.

BEST IN ITS FIELD: Mongkol Ekpanyapong, right, has developed the ‘Robofarmer’ to boost the efficiency of rice farming. The machine, pictured in action below, uses a pneumatic control system that distributes seeds in even increments.

FIRST DRAFT: At the AIT lab, form follows function, as shown in the prototypes for a stair-climbing wheelchair, above, and a flight simulator, right.

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