Name: Claire Brophy
Design Robotics Role: Post-Doc Research Fellow
Favourite quote: “There is no subject so old that something new cannot be said about it.” Fyodor Dostoevsky
Favourite Robot Podcasts: Well, not a podcast, but a lecture. And not just about robots, but close enough. 2017 Boyer Lectures: Fast, Smart and Connected: What is it to be Human, and Australian, in a Digital World.
Well, for me as a researcher, it’s the challenge of doing something that I know little about – robotics. It’s also about the cutting edge technology of Design Robotics that is part of the next major transformation in manufacturing. I am interested in how we balance the use of these advanced technologies and address the concerns of the people working with them every day.
What is your background? How did you end up in Design Robotics?
My background is pretty eclectic: I have worked in journalism and hospitality management. I, then, pursued an education in industrial design. My PhD looked at how older people interact with communication technologies and how these technologies should be designed for older users. It was less about what buttons they press and in what order, and more about the reasons they are engaging with the technology. I was keen to find out what keeps them using tech, the social fabric that ties them to the tech and the people they communicate with. Interestingly, older users expect values such as respect to be embedded in the technology. This research challenged the stereotypes of ageing and definitions of what it means to be old. This body of work, other research projects and my relationships with my colleagues led me to be part of the Design Robotics project.
Tell us a bit about the Design Robotics project, and what you do within the project.
The Design Robotics project is a collaboration between Urban Art Projects (UAP), two universities – QUT and RMIT, and the IMCRC. UAP is a bespoke manufacturer of public art and architectural installations. The Design Robotics team are teaching robots to ‘see’ so that they can take over some of the traditionally toxic and often dangerous manufacturing tasks. My role in Design Robotics is to bring a human-centred perspective to the team, surrounded by very clever roboticists and engineers. So my focus is more on the socio-cultural aspects that influence how people might be able to interact, and expect to interact with robots.
Tell us a little more about the problem you are solving in Design Robotics.
To understand how a robot can begin to take on tasks that have traditionally been done by hand, it is important to understand all aspects of the task itself. To bridge that gap, we study the way a task is traditionally done to transfer this knowledge to the robot. For example, we have worked with an expert linisher at UAP (removing the excess material from a metal object to leave a polished finish). It is a highly-skilled, physically arduous and time-consuming work, and there are endless challenges in trying to transfer this skill to a robot – both in understanding the human perspective and the physical constraints of the work – and the technology perspective, which involves teaching the robot to be able to do it. So in the context of this study, we are trying to understand how workshop staff uses their tools and the decisions they make in using the tools.
What has been your biggest joy with the project so far?
It’s about the people, they are an excellent and inspiring group of people.
A pleasure to work with every day.
What is your next big goal with the project?
This December, I will be presenting at the World Open Innovation Conference in Rome. It will cover our work on exploring ‘open innovation’ from a design perspective within the context of the upcoming Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Hub in Queensland. And in parallel, I will be focussing on developing a workplace study on understanding the manufacturing work at UAP, so we can design for the best human-robot interaction possible.
To connect with Claire and learn more about her work:
Design Robotics | LinkedIn | QUT eprints
Why the Australian manufacturing industry needs the next generation of robots
Amid the gloom about the prospects for manufacturing in Australia — and the difficulties facing an economy dominated by small businesses (nearly 90% of Australian manufacturing capacity) — there is some cause for optimism. A new generation of lightweight, assistive robots looks to provide small to medium enterprises (SMEs) with new options to improve their competitiveness and meet the challenges of high costs and a shortage of skilled workers.
The news is good for workers, too. Robotic “smart tools” offer a means of removing danger and monotony from the work environment and, in striking contrast to conventional beliefs, provide a way to retain the existing workforce for longer.
Studies have shown that robots can boost productivity, but this productivity dividend is dependent on a human workforce able to set them up, maintain them, and make creative decisions about how best to complete work tasks. In a US case study of Marlin Steel, introduction of robots not only boosted quality of company product, but increased employee remuneration.
The manufacture of robots is a growing source of employment. A 2011 report commissioned by the International Federation of Robotics found that 150,000 people worldwide are already employed in the engineering and assembly of robots.
This report also identifies use of robotics in SMEs as essential to win back manufacturing from countries with low labour costs. In this case, the introduction of robots is capable of maintaining the viability of manufacturing in developed countries – and preserving manufacturing jobs.
Assistive robotics offer a high-productivity solution that could also help Australian manufacturing integrate into regional value chains, as recommended in the recent Asian Century white paper.
Lightweight robots can be integrated into the Australian workplace as assistants to workers in three ways.
The first is as “intelligent tools”, which work together with human workers. Mobile assistants, manipulators, “smart” picking, lifting and handling systems, and robotic welders, gluers and assemblers enable automation of short-run production processes, and provide a flexible solution to increase efficiency of production.
Secondly, robots can also be used as tools to augment the abilities of human workers in manufacturing processes. Powered exoskeletons enable workers, regardless of age or gender, to lift and manipulate heavy loads safely. Wearable machine vision systems can alert workers to workplace hazards in real-time, including hazards which can’t be detected visually, such as radiation and high temperatures. Mobile assistive robotic trainers and tele-immersive training systems enable experienced staff to remotely mentor workers who are new to a work environment.
The third way is as “smart” field tools, which enable human workers to manufacture items under hazardous or challenging conditions. Tele-operated mobile tools and vehicles are already in use in the mining industry, enabling work to be supervised remotely in an environment that is safe and comfortable for workers. Rigs which facilitate micro-manipulation and micro-assembly enable workers to conduct micro-assembly of complex items without strain to eyesight. Virtual and augmented reality systems allow workers to manipulate tools while remote from the factory floor, therefore reducing risks of work-related injury such as repetitive strain and injuries from use of tools.
So why is robotics changing? Conventional industrial robots — such as those used in automotive manufacturing — are heavy, programmed for one task, fixed in place on the factory floor, and expensive to buy, install, program and maintain. They are also potentially hazardous to humans, so workers are usually excluded from the robot workspace. But the next generation of lightweight robots is different.
A number of technological advances have made this new generation of lightweight robots possible.
First, the next generation of robots can “see” the workplace using advanced vision systems (including stereo and infrared cameras and multi-modal imaging), high precision sensors and perception algorithms.
Secondly, the new generation of robots is mobile. They know where they are and can navigate within the workplace thanks to navigation, localisation and mapping technologies – such as Wi-Fi localisation, beacon-based navigation, simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM), and accurate 2D or 3D modelling.
Importantly, human workers are now able to easily communicate with robots via voice and visual gesture recognition. Sophisticated human-robot interactive interfaces allow shared autonomy and human supervisory control. Additionally, augmented and virtual reality robotic systems allow workers to work remotely in hazardous or physically demanding working environments and to tele-operate and tele-supervise remote equipment. Emerging global high-speed wireless communication systems such as the NBN provide the required infrastructure for these technologies.
Manipulation technologies, including force-amplifying exoskeletons (frameworks worn by workers to provide mobility and lifting assistance), dexterous manipulation (grasping and moving complex objects using robotic “fingers” or claws), and multi-robot cooperation make for a working environment that is safer for the workforce and enable any worker – regardless of sex or age – to effectively perform physically onerous or dangerous tasks in complete safety. Robotic tools similar to existing micro-surgery rigs enable workers to perform miniature component manufacturing and assembly tasks with precision and dexterity – without risk to their health.
Finally, the new generation of robots would not be possible without smart fabrication. Miniaturisation and smart and lightweight materials make for small, light, smart robots. These robots can move rapidly around a workplace, respond to commands to fetch tools, rapidly shift stores of materials and finished product, and complement human activities.