Navigant Research Blog

Automated Taskforce Developments Inching Forward

Anne Wrobetz — April 8, 2016

police unmanned aerial vehicleDrones—also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs—are quickly becoming commonplace in today’s world, performing such tasks as delivery, surveillance, and agricultural monitoring. Drones are not the only robotics coming to the forefront, however. The DARPA Robotics Challenge encourages teams to make humanoid robots that can accomplish certain tasks. Last year’s finals took place in June of 2015. The goal of the DARPA competition, aside from gazing in awe at the future, is to further advance robotics.

Following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan, it became clear that there is a need for robots that can perform emergency tasks when it is unsafe for humans to enter an area. The DARPA competition had robots performing “eight tasks relevant to disaster response, among them driving alone, walking through rubble, tripping circuit breakers, turning valves and climbing stairs.” There are certain tasks that are impossible, unnecessary, or unsafe for humans to perform—robots are marching forward to fill that gap.

Filling the Gap

Many companies are also developing advanced robots for purposes of their own. For example, Apple recently unveiled Liam, a robot designed to disassemble iPhones for recycling. Liam has been in production for over 3 years, largely in secret. It was revealed at Apple’s spring 2016 product launch. The machine has 29 freestanding robotic arms, each designed to remove a piece of the iPhone. The machine has not been perfected yet—it has not been proven at full scale and is currently only functional for only iPhone 6s models. However, Liam represents a broader shift in clean technology. Companies are increasingly relying on robotics for assembly and, in Apple’s case, disassembly of products.

In turn, consumers are demanding more sustainable and recycled goods. Current recycling can be extremely inefficient, often involving a great deal of human labor. As a result of inefficient recycling, e-waste production in 2012 rose to a whopping 50 million tons according to United Nations estimates. A shift toward more robotics will make separation of recycling easier, faster, and more energy efficient, ultimately leading to an increase in post-consumer recycled goods.

The idea of robots rendering humans obsolete is one that has been played out in science fiction across the years. But we are entering an age where we can address the needs of a technology-dependent society with technology. The Industrial Revolution brought with it an unprecedented boom in human population as well as clouds of coal-fired pollution. The increasing popularity of personal, small-scale computing technology brought increased productivity and advancements in science, as well as a massive spike in toxic electronic waste. Nuclear power has brought electricity to millions, as well as horrifically dangerous disasters. It seems as though we are finally filling the technological gaps and patching the disadvantages of past technological advancements. Who would have guessed it might be by fitting a robot-shaped bandage over a machine-shaped hole?

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