Friday, August 19, 2011

Photonics and service robots

Conard Holton
Associate Publisher, Editor in Chief
Laser Focus World

In my previous role as editor in chief of Vision Systems Design, I co-authored an extensive market survey about vision in service robots. Service robots operate independently or semi-independently and do not include robots used for traditional manufacturing operations. Some of the primary photonics technologies used in service robots are structured-light systems, two-camera stereo systems, time-of-flight sensors, lidar, and single-lens camera systems.

These robots perform tasks that range from aerial surveillance, bomb disposal, autonomous driving, farming, and warehouse logistics, to teaching children and assisting the elderly. Many countries and regions have a strong policy of fostering research and development in this field. In summary, the report concluded that defense and security applications offer the largest and most diverse market opportunities for vision in the near term (2010-2013):

* unmanned aerial vehicles ($2.4 billion)
* military and security robots ($309 million)
* unmanned underwater vehicles ($21.3 million)

However, relatively simple vision systems for robots in the office or warehouse offer some of the fastest growing opportunities, as do vision systems in robots used for education and research, and for simple home surveillance.

For example, DARwIn-OP (left) is an open-source, open-platform research robot developed by a partnership of universities led by the Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Tech.

In addition, the healthcare industry offers substantial new opportunities for robot vision in surgery, rehabilitation, care, and assistive living. As populations age around the world, service robots will play critical roles in compensating for limited nursing staff, improving outcomes, and enabling many people to live independently longer.

The adaptation of service robots could be surprisingly fast if low-cost machines were available. With the advent of consumer technologies such as the Microsoft $150 Kinect with SDK and the numerous applications now being developed, machines with reasonable 3-D capabilities at a reasonable price, whether developed for games or industrial inspection, will soon be at hand.

P.S. There are many enlightening videos around of what is coming from the research community. This one about Leonardo from Cynthia Breazeal at MIT is a favorite.

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