Retail, Innovation and Manufacturing reporter for the NZ Herald

Rise of the robots a game-changer

New Zealand needs to take advantage of fast-moving technology after workplace safety improves, says expert.

Science fiction is fast becoming reality as robots take their place alongside human colleagues everywhere from factories to hospitals - a technological shift a local expert says New Zealand needs to exploit.

Cinema audiences may be more familiar with a scenario where robots turn on their makers and try to take over the world.

While an army of mutineer robots may still be far-fetched in today's society, a world in which humans work alongside and collaborate with them is not. A recent robotics conference in Boston highlighted a number of leaps the industry had made over the last few years.

According to Callaghan Innovation ICT national network manager, Jonathan Miller, who attended the conference, New Zealand is at a pivotal point in benefiting from the "game changing" technology.

"The focus [of the conference] really was on what's the opportunity in the manufacturing space. And that was the one where I think, if New Zealand adopts this type of technology quickly, we can get some really big benefits out of it," Miller said.

"It's a massive driver for innovation in the future so I think we should know what's going on and what the trends are and be looking to exploit the technology as it comes up."

One of the key focuses of the conference was on collaborative robotics - robots working alongside humans.

Previously, industrial robots had been kept separate from humans for safety reasons. The machines were kept in caged areas or had sensors so that if a human came too close, the machine would power off.

Miller said this had all changed with a number of advances in the robotics field which meant that it was safe for them to work alongside humans.

Boston-based robotics company, Rethink Robotics, showcased one such robot at the conference, affectionately named Baxter, which had been designed specifically to work collaboratively alongside humans.

Baxter will move slower when it senses humans within a narrow range of itself and if it did bump into someone it would not cause damage. The robot also had the ability to sort products based on colour, size and weight.

Baxter from Rethink Robots.

Another major breakthrough for the sector was the ease of programming robots, which would previously require a roboticist or an electronic engineer but could now be done by most factory workers.

For smaller New Zealand companies, perhaps the most significant change was the price decrease in robots. Machines that would previously have cost around US$500,000 ($576,000), now cost around US$20,000. According to Miller, the applications robots such as Baxter could have for New Zealand companies were huge.

"In that price range, robots are suddenly a possibility, and because you can easily reprogramme them, they could be doing different tasks throughout the day, which would have been impossible before.

New Zealand [small and medium enterprises] should be trying to adopt this technology," Miller said.

Although the focus of the conference was centred around manufacturing, robotics applications for other sectors was also discussed.

In the US, a robotics company called iRobot has developed a machine for use in hospitals.

The robot is able to autonomously navigate its way around hospitals, and can be remotely called to different wards at different times.

According to Miller, the robot's ability to then teleconference will help connect hospitals and specialists around the country.

"Let's say you're New Zealand's only top surgeon on strokes, and there's a patient in Hamilton and you're in Auckland, you can sit in your office and say I need to be in ward 17 at 11.30am and the robot will just show up there.

"The doctor can then use a telepresence scheme to take control and look at the patient and talk to the nurses. It's going to make things a lot easier," Miller said.

A number of New Zealand companies had been working well in the robotics field, with specialist robotics sectors at several New Zealand universities and a number of research projects underway, however Miller said we needed to be looking to be fast adopters of new technology and reap the benefits.

Google in the hunt

Global web giant Google is making a move to be at the forefront of the robotics industry, with the release of its self-driving cars just the beginning.

Google spent several billion of its $111.7 billion fortune buying up eight robotics firms in November and December. It has also bought stakes in several other robotics and artificial intelligence companies.

Despite Callaghan Innovation ICT national network manager Jonathan Miller's jokes about a Google-controlled robot army, several experts in the field are perplexed by the move, about which Google is keeping quiet.

Miller said the buys were proof that the rapidly evolving field was an area to watch.

Robots are coming

What is New Zealand doing?

• Rex Bionics - produce exoskeletons to help people in wheelchairs walk again.
• Invert Robotics - produce robots capable of scaling milk vats to check welds and flaws in the vats.
• Robotics Plus - produce kiwifruit picking robots.
• The New Zealand Government has offered funding for researchers looking into robots for the care of the elderly.
• University research into a number of areas including robots for search and rescue operations.

- NZ Herald

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