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UpFront: Will a Robot Save the Day?

Sarah A. Webster





By Sarah A. Webster
Editor in Chief

By the time you read this, it is very likely that Bluefin-21, an autonomous underwater vehicle equipped with side-scan sonar—acoustic technology—will be hard at work scanning a section of the Indian Ocean where the final pings of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 may have last signaled its location.

The AUV—a missile-shaped robot developed, manufactured and operated by Bluefin Robotics in Quincy, MA—uses sound waves to create pictures deep in the dark sea, and it will be scanning the bottom of the ocean floor in the same methodical manner many people will be mowing their lawns this summer.

This scanning is slow, tedious work, but the pictures are said to be phenomenal—proving, once again, the increasing value of modern robots. Multidisciplinary and multifacted robots are used today for a wide range of increasingly sophisticated tasks, many of which are unfriendly to humans, such as searching the bottom of the ocean floor.

I was lucky enough to attend Michigan Robotics Day at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor last month—which was packed with young people—and it was a fun day to slow down and think about all the ways robots are improving our efficiency and effectiveness at making and doing things, and what the future may hold.

Thomas Brady, a control systems engineer and founder of SkySpecs, LLC, in Ann Arbor, spoke on one of the panels about how the drones his start-up company is creating are helping to collect data from hard to reach places, such as the top of wind turbines, deep inside tunnels and under bridges. He also talked about his passion for the multidisciplinary science and art of robot making, which requires knowledge in mechanics, software, electronics, sensors, biomechanics and more. Brady advised anybody interested in a career in robotics to simply go out and start making things. “Making things is the closest we can get to magic,” he said, in a heartfelt, high-five-worthy endorsement of manufacturing.

Overall, the day left me with the impression that it isn’t just humans who are interconnected on this great planet, but all things, really, as we infuse cars and planes and many other devices with the sensory and logic tools necessary to take control and help us, say, avoid accidents or land gently during bad weather. Given the tragedy of the missing Boeing 777-200, whose location had still not been confirmed as of press time, I was also left wondering what the world of robotics might have to offer in order to prevent an enormous 70-yard airplane, whose wingspan is greater than a football field, to go missing again, if not prevent a crash in the first place.


This article was first published in the May 2014 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF

Published Date : 5/1/2014

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