How the Internet of Things Is Making Room for Better Robotics

July 1, 2019 - 7 minutes read

The Internet of Things (IoT) is already bringing advancements in connectivity to numerous sectors, cities, work environments, and even households. But we’re really only tapping into the “tip of the iceberg” as far as this technology’s potential goes.

Case in point: Robotics. In the past few decades, the field of robotics has grown exponentially. When you empower robotics with technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), its capabilities can soar. Similarly, when you combine robotics with a network of connected devices, sensors, and cloud computing through IoT, the possibilities truly become endless.

An Extra Hand at Home

Equipping homes with IoT-enabled robotics can help you run the household holistically. For many families, such capabilities would be considered a luxury. But for disabled and elderly people, robotics could improve quality of life drastically.

Researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland recently outfitted an apartment with futuristic robotics and technology. The group focused on improving daily hiccups for people with special needs. Robots were placed around the home to interact with connected devices in the home. They envisioned a robot that could find the homeowner through location-based sensors and alerting them about the person who just rang the doorbell. Doctors and family members could easily get in touch via video conferencing.

The researchers also wanted the robots to provide protection, whether it’s letting the person know the oven has been left on accidentally or calling the police in the event of an emergency.

This is not to say that connected devices like Google Home or Alexa are useless; they offer information, collaboration, and similar services. But robots can move around, interact with the person, and keep on top of all sensors in the home. This type of in-person engagement creates social bonds with the user, which increases trust in the technology.

The smart apartment recently hosted a robotics competition, called the European Robotics League Service Robot Competition. Contestants were instructed to create robots for special needs’ homes. Many groups of researchers from around Europe descended on Edinburgh to develop robots that help grab objects, greet visitors, and keep dangerous appliances turned off when not in use. This year, a group from┬áKoblenz University in Germany won the competition with their robot, Lisa.

Industrial Robotics

Oil and gas companies use IoT to connect information from a variety of sensors that constantly generate data around corrosion levels, pressure, and temperature. These sensors help detect abnormalities in offshore equipment and alert stakeholders before it becomes a major problem.

Ultimately, the goal is to have robots that not only detect maintenance and repairs but also perform the necessary operations themselves. Sensors in difficult-to-see or hard-to-reach places provide enormous value for companies through cost savings and fewer workplace accidents.

ORCA Hub is a $45.6 million project initiated by the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics; it connects experts in IoT and robotics with more than 30 industry partners in offshore energy to share information, knowledge, learnings, and best practices. The goal of ORCA Hub is to improve the costs and risks associated with projects in remote and hazardous areas.

For offshore companies in general, the water presents unique challenges. For example, radio waves don’t travel well underwater. When comparing radio waves to acoustic waves, it comes down to speed versus accuracy; acoustic waves travel better but they’re 5 times slower than radio waves (1,500 meters/second versus 300 meters/second). Connected acoustic devices are more expensive, too.

ORCA Hub wants to present a collaborative environment for experts to work together to create inexpensive connected acoustic devices that work more efficiently than current technology. While advancements in this niche field may be slow, any improvements will help lower the risk of losing a human life.

Repairs and maintenance could take place underwater, rather than above water. The hope is that, one day, offshore equipment could communicate across hundreds of nautical miles in almost real-time, from a rig outside of Houston to a rig placed in Mexico.

The nuclear energy, civil engineering, farming, logistics, waste, and manufacturing industries also have niche IoT applications for robotics.

Open Sourcing Robotics

Many researchers and experts are calling to increase transparency into the research, knowledge, and expertise around IoT and robotics. Instead of working in isolated pockets, better-than-ever Internet connectivity should enable everyone to work more closely together. This collaboration could significantly improve the rate of advancement of IoT-enabled robotics.

Some efforts, like the European Robotics Forum and the IoT Week workshop, revolve around collaboration and community. But more must be done if we expect to keep up with worldwide IoT development.

As cybersecurity and safety become more foundational to IoT, it may become imperative that we share our knowledge more openly. Joint projects between universities or sponsorship of research teams would further push this initiative forward; robotics and IoT are not cheap to develop!

Uniting robotics and IoT is complex, but the benefits far outweigh the effort and work required to make it happen. This mash-up of the two technologies will always keep evolving. And while that may introduce the need to keep pace with the latest developments, it also opens up the door for new applications that can help people who need the technology most.

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