In our previous article, Robotics Technology Breakthroughs (Part 1), Tractica highlighted the need for breakthroughs in the areas of battery technology, sensor accuracy, and manipulation competency. In addition to those areas, Tractica understands that there is a lot of work to be done in order to improve the degree of autonomy and energy efficiency of actuators in the robots.
Higher autonomy is perhaps the most sought-after robotics capability that can give a tremendous competitive edge to robotics market participants. A robot with a higher degree of autonomy can easily cope with a dynamic environment, be it on land, in the air, or underwater, thereby becoming more practical for usage. Higher autonomy can enable a robot to assess correct information about its environment and keep performing its assigned work without human intervention and assistance. Moreover, the robot can easily avoid undesirable situations of harming people, property, or itself, while simultaneously learning and improving its knowledge base.
There have been significant improvements in some robots’ autonomy features like self-charging and indoor navigation in the last 10 years, as illustrated by cleaning robots from iRobot and Dyson with robots that can find and connect themselves to a charging station easily, as well as navigate indoors autonomously while avoiding obstacles. These improvements in cleaning robot autonomy certainly have a clear impact on their sales volumes. However, the same self-charging and self-navigation features present significant challenges for robots that are designed to work outdoors, mostly due to the 3D terrain, disparities in surface density, adverse weather conditions, and poor sensing of the environment. Even for a robotics system like a drone (which has a fast-growing market in both the commercial and consumer segments of the market, with outdoor autonomy perceived to be easily achieved in the air, 100% autonomy remains a challenge. Only a few companies, such as Airobotics from Israel, claim to offer fully autonomous, industrial-grade drones.
Removing humans from the control equation remains a daunting task for many companies, be it for an autonomous drone or a car. According to the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, a higher degree of autonomy requires a larger combination of components that must collectively produce a robust behavior in planning, control, perception, and learning processes, and if each has a robustness of 99%, then the robustness of the overall behavior of the system will be only 90%. In all research areas of autonomous robotics, namely perception, control, adaptability, learning capability, and mechatronics, there are significant unknown quantities that still do not permit robust autonomous robots to be created for everyday use.
The “muscles” of a robot are nothing but actuators, the most important unit that enables robots to move physically. While the actuators used in robots vary from brushless motors to pneumatic artificial muscles (air muscles), they have an inherited problem of high energy consumption, not only in the case of non-stationary robots with a higher degree of freedom, such as humanoid robots, but also in the case of industrial robots to a greater extent. In fact, according to Siemens, robots used in the auto industry consume more than half of the total energy required to produce the body of a vehicle.
Several new techniques are being investigated to improve overall energy efficiency, including redesigning the entire power transmission, as happened with the PROXI humanoid robot from SRI International. SRI claims that PROXI is 20 times more efficient than current humanoid robotic platforms. However, it is not clear how expensive or how complex the technique is when implementing it in robots for commercial applications. Robots based on series elastic actuators (SEAs) like Baxter and Sawyer from Rethink Robotics have a certain level of softness and mechanical compliance, but no significant energy efficiency improvements.
Having an energy-efficient actuator is an unfulfilled demand of the robotics industry, so recent developments with electroactive polymers (EAPs or EPAMs) and elastic nanotubes are promising, but will still take time to mature. Low-power electroactive polymers could enable biomimetic robots to float, fly, swim, or walk, whereas elastic nanotubes, which are more compact and stronger than human muscles, might enable robots to outrun and outjump humans. According to research conducted at the University of British Columbia, human biceps could be easily replaced with an 8 mm diameter wire of elastic nanotubes, which can hold high amounts of energy in very limited volumetric space.
Actuators with higher autonomy and increased energy efficiency will remain a major challenge in the robotics field for several years. However, Tractica expects advances in machine learning and smart materials to be helpful in addressing these challenges in the near term.