SRI on the future of robotics

The Robot Report

In 1995, SRI International created a spin-off company, Intuitive Surgical, that licenses SRI technology.

Futuristic robots and artificial intelligence (AI) are advancing at a breakneck pace, and some exciting innovations are on the horizon. For those of us working in the industry, the future of robotics isn’t as much the “future” as it is our present. 2022 brings continued advancements in our industry.

SRI International, a nonprofit research institute, has led the discovery and design of innovative robotic technologies for 75 years. From “Shakey the Robot,” one of the first robots to be integrated with AI, to the da Vinci system, a surgical robot that performs minimally-invasive surgery licensed by Intuitive Surgical, to Motobot, the world’s first motorcycle racing robot, developed in coordination with Yamaha, SRI is making functional robots a reality.

Here are several robotics applications SRI is bullish on going forward.

Teleoperation and medical response

Recently, SRI has focused on incorporating robots into surgical procedures. As the technology progresses, researchers hope to create AI in remotely-controlled robots with hypersensitive hand-eye coordination and to allow them to be directed in abstract rather than direct ways while virtual reality and far-casting — teleoperation across long distances — capabilities increase.

Currently, teleoperation technologies aren’t available in situations where they may be of most use, such as on battlefields, because of distance and bandwidth issues. But the SRI team is working diligently to overcome this issue by creating robots that do not require a high-def user interface. To accomplish this, the robot must be able to perceive its surroundings, execute at a higher level than a typical teleoperator, and operate on a more abstract and less detailed rate of instruction.

This type of technology also supports faster response in care, especially in the “golden hour” of trauma care where immediate responses to patient injury and symptoms are essential.

There are many benefits to using robotics in trauma surgery, including remote diagnosis and surgical assistance to reduce the number of highly-skilled people in the operating room, enabling those skilled people to work in more places and serve more people. The goal with such technology is to stabilize the patient, rather than definitive surgical repair.

Robotics research in service of human need

Many of the advancements within this space are designed to help underserved communities. While this has long been a driver in robotics research, we continue to expand the depth and breadth of our efforts through energy production, prosthetics and more. Understanding more than just how a robot can harvest energy, but also who benefits from those advancements is part of the strategic thinking our industry must take on.

Robotic technologies emerging from the fields of machine learning and autonomous control are enabling a new generation of environmental energy-harvesting devices. These autonomous, tethered vehicles, move unseen beneath the sea surface, capture the energy of tidal movements, and convert this abundant source of renewable power into electricity without harming the environment or wildlife. The electrical power will serve native communities in Alaska.

Technologies created to power exoskeletons are being adapted to orthotics, helping those rehabilitating from injury return to their pre-injury lifestyle more quickly, and can reduce the likelihood of re-injury.  The lightweight transmissions, efficient and powerful electric motors and body harnessing technologies all were originally developed through research sponsored by the U.S. Government.

Unearthing all of robotics’ impact

In 2022, SRI is working to create commercial space robotics for servicing satellites and performing construction on the moon. The goal is to allow for space-based manufacturing, which, in the long run, will reduce the complexity and cost of building large structures that can support human life. This means projects like an automated asteroid mining rig, larger ships destined for Mars or actual moon bases – both real possibilities current research and innovation are enabling.

These types of robots will effectively eliminate some of the problems that have limited our exploration of space because human assembly of such equipment is limited to lower orbits. Robots would enable the repair and construction of simple structures being built in space.

Unlimited potential of AI and robotics

Whether it’s a rock-steady assist in surgery, or life-saving speed in trauma scenarios, or the ability to build and forge in terrain unfit for humans, innovations in AI and robotics fuel possibility. The technology SRI is developing in each field influences ideas and solutions in another.

In some cases, the robotics solution already exists and work must be done to remove impediments preventing its full actualization. For example, the current fundamental limitation of teleoperation at long distances is the latency of data and commands getting to/from the robot.

As machines learn, the robot can understand the structure of the scene it’s interacting with and can start to operate based on its understanding of operator intent. Once accommodations for latency are made in the learning phases to deliver quality instruction, robots can build, support and learn even deeper into space, the ocean or wherever human operators take them.

About the Author

Thomas P. Low is director, robotics laboratory, at SRI International. He leads a team of engineers and scientists in developing new robotic systems and technologies for commercial and government clients. Low has experience in program management, robotics, software development, mechanical design, medical product development, computer-aided engineering, design for manufacturability, electromechanical systems, sensor development, real-time computer graphics, and dynamic simulation.

Since joining SRI in 1984, Low has led projects in automation and material handling, autonomous vehicles, advanced man-machine interfaces, medical devices and robotics, including the Extreme Environment Missions deployment of teleoperated robotic systems, drug delivery devices, and blood and plasma processing instruments.

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