Article Source: IMechE
Ahead of the Robotics for Hazardous Environments seminar, we caught up with Rich Walker, Managing Director at the Shadow Robot Company. Rich explained his role and involvement in robotics and automation, the critical challenges, five to 10 year vision and what he is looking forward to at the event.
Q: Could you briefly explain your role and involvement in robotics?
Rich Walker (RW): I’m Rich Walker and I’ve worked in robotics for over 20 years. I’m the Managing Director at the Shadow Robot Company which is one of UK’s leading robotics developers and experts at grasping and manipulation for robotic hands. We’ve worked with companies and researchers all over the world, looking at new ways to apply robotics technologies to solve real problems.
I also sit on the Innovate UK “Robotics and Autonomous Systems” SIG Advisory Board, which allows me to influence the direction the UK takes in robotics in a way that makes sense to SMEs and innovators, as well as being a Director of euRobotics, and various EPSRC and University networks and committees around robotics.
Q: In your experience, what is the number one challenge facing engineers when using robotics in hazardous environments?>
RW: There are many challenges faced by engineers when using robotics in hazardous environments, all of which, to an engineer, would be important in solving. In my experience, these usually revolve around control, sensors and communication, all essential components of telerobotics.
Control involves getting the remote-controlled manipulator to perform in real time without time delay. It should feel as natural as if the operator was using his or her own limbs. The sensors should not only process the environment accurately (dealing with limited, distorted or noisy data) but to relay this to the operator for reliable environmental insights. Augmented reality can help here as it can enhance the feedback information that the operator receives but the challenges are still there.
Q: What is the most exciting development in this field at the moment, either within your company or in your specific engineering sector?
RW: We’ve always been proud of our flagship product, the Shadow Dexterous Hand, which has been implemented in high-risk scenarios from pharma lab automation to nuclear decommissioning, but we’re also really excited about our new Teleoperation System.
This newly launched product comprises of clever elements including Shadow’s Dexterous Hand (controllable by a CyberGlove on the operator’s hand) which is attached to a UR10 robot arm (controllable by a PhaseSpace motion capture tool on the operator’s wrist). Both the CyberGlove and Motion Capture wrist tool have mapping capabilities so that the Dexterous Hand and the robot arm can mimic an operator’s movements.
It’s a great system to be used in hazardous conditions as it allows remote control of robotic technologies while providing distance and safety. Our Teleoperation System is already being deployed at the world’s first space Avatar (teleoperation) test field as part of a space mission called AVATAR X. It’s a key example of the exciting opportunities telerobotics can bring, not just in society but from the ground-up too.
Q: Where do you see the future of robotics technologies heading over the next 5 to 10 years?
RW: I believe the future of robotics technologies is going to be big! While small business owners may not innately be thinking of using a robot yet, there’s no doubt that robotics has got much more recognition today which is creating a keen interest in using it to help with real-world problems. As this interest translates more into a demand, we’ll be seeing many exciting engineering innovations geared towards solving pressing issues such as the ageing population crisis or nuclear decommissioning.
Artificial Intelligence is also exploding on the scene. Tech giants are fiercely investing in AI to use within their operations and we’ve been doing exciting stuff in this area too as seen by our recent work with OpenAI. The collaboration shows that it is possible to train agents in simulation, without modelling exact conditions and that the agents can use new learnings to efficiently solve real-world tasks in a real-life setting. This could make things a lot safer when it comes to robots in hazardous conditions as the robots could anticipate hazards before they occur and take the relevant measures for crisis-prevention. At this stage, AI is very much data-driven but there is potential in the future for AI to advance to a place where it can, to some extent, “think for itself”. However, this is an ambitious task and can’t be done in isolation.
Q: What are you most looking forward to by presenting at this seminar?
RW: It’ll be really interesting to learn about how robotics application has helped other organisations reduce engineering time and risks, speed up the production cycle and create an overall safe working environment. Challenges will differ from place to place so having insights on what obstacles were faced and how they were overcome is useful for everyone in robotics. By learning together, we can put an end to compromising a worker’s health and safety, dramatically reducing the risk of employee injuries and deaths.
Attend this seminar to:
- Hear from leading organisations using and developing robotics including Rolls-Royce, National Nuclear Laboratory, Airbus Defence and Space and Wood Group
- Learn about the latest developments in autonomous robotic technology across hazardous industries
- Understand how robotics can improve safety, efficacy and cost efficiency, with case studies from a nuclear decommissioning environment
- Meet and discuss with robotics experts and end users from academia, research, space, aviation, construction, nuclear, rail and oil and gas.
Gain insight into designing for locomotion, innovations in grasping, sensing and manipulating objects, and the role of AI and autonomy in a robotic future. Learn how to make the most of developments in robotics for hazardous environments, including the space, nuclear, offshore, construction, aviation and oil and gas industries. To book your place, please visit www.imeche.org/robotics.