Robots are especially useful in inspection, maintenance: Sethu Vijayakumar

Sethu Vijayakumar, Professor and director, Edinburgh Centre for Robotics
What are the key focus areas of research at Edinburgh Centre for Robotics?

In terms of robotics, we have a big strand of research that covers three aspects, namely skills, assets and infrastructure. We also train PhD students in the area of robotics to feed the pipeline of robotics professionals. At the same time, we have clusters to interact with the industry and academia to both help create policies and advance informed research.

We have been working with the United Kingdom (UK) government in defining what is called as Industry Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF). We are not into research for the heck of it. Research for us is about looking at the global challenges, both economically and scientifically, and funding projects that can help bring in tangible results. The UK government is supporting and promoting research in eight technologies under ISCF funds. Robotics is one of them.

Are you also looking at commercial gains arising from the research in robotics?

Within robotics our focus areas are offshore energy automation, nuclear decommissioning and running nuclear power plants safely, space and mining. We are running projects in all three areas except mining.

Given the current downturn in oil prices, the focus is on using robotics to make oil, offshore gas and natural gas economically viable. The efforts are directed towards finding more and more ways of operating rigs from offshore. The objective is to ensure that only key personnel are on the rigs and all the critical operations are remotely managed through resources which are offshore. The 36-million pound project is being jointly funded by the UK government and industry players such as Schlumberger, Total, BP and Chevron. The idea is to create robots that are able to do what we call asset inspection and management by carrying out security checks at rigs. This can be done through two modalities. First, through the drones that have the capability of going underwater and second, through quadrupled robots (three legged) which can carry out inspection work while staying on the surface.

Space is another interesting area for robotics deployment. With growing usage of GPS technology and the ever-growing number of satellite launches, astronauts are struggling with debris as they work in space. We want robots to clear the debris in space. This area offers immense commercial benefits. We are closely working with Nasa to deploy robots in our mission to make humans a two-planet species.

What are the robotics-led models lend that can be deployed across countries and markets?

The inspection and maintenance by robots is a model that can be replicated across industries. For example, both developed and developing countries have large built infrastructure including high-rise buildings, underground metro systems and sewage plants. With countries and people building crazy, it is impossible to physically check and inspect such large assets. Insurance companies like Lloyd’s are keen on finding ways to carry out certification of such assets in a way which is quantifiable for insurance. The whole idea is to use robotics to make work across industries economically viable and less dangerous for humans. Another key focus area for us is carrying out safe and secure decommissioning of nuclear plants using robots. We are offering this as a service to governments worldwide.

We are focusing on using robotics to create additional value and push new domains.

Could you elaborate on your research initiatives for the Indian market?

Prosthetics is a big area that can benefit from robotics advancement. I’m working closely with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi to develop prosthetics that will cost one-50th of what it costs in other global markets. Powered by sensors developed by IIT Delhi, the 3D printed hand prosthetics will be customised to suit Indian conditions, that is they will be able to withstand dirt and sweat. Some of the policies and products and some of the research thrust needs to be very much customised to India. Then there are products and solutions that are universal and can work very well in India. For example, many think that introducing robots in agriculture in India is not a particularly right thing to do. The general sentiment being that robotics will take away jobs. Also, there is a view that with the availability of cheap farm labour, introduction of a new technology does not make sense. But think about high usage of pesticide in farms and resultant high-cost diseases like cancer.

Robotics is not necessarily about replacing people. Like Australia, India too stands to benefit hugely if it introduces solar-powered robots to sort out weeds from the farmland. This could ensure availability of healthier food for people.

For India, we are closely looking at the cost and the local context in terms of technology that we are developing. There is no single model that can leverage robotics equally across countries. Each country is different. For example, UK has a different demography, small population and inverted pyramid. And India is massively different and therefore, while coming up with robotics-led solutions we have to think of social context as to what is right and will work best for the country.

Do we have the talent pool to develop and deploy robotics at scale?

From global as well as UK-centric perspectives, I would say that at the moment, we do not have the human resources to deploy robots in many areas. We do not have the sheer capacity to find people to write software, analyse and debug software if something goes wrong. The skills to identify and reset the software are missing in the UK as well as worldwide.

Coming to India, in terms of computer skills and information technology expertise, the country has amazing depth and breadth of talent. But when it comes to robotics, which involves core hardware development, skills to turn around full prototype and carry out ground testing, those are lacking. Look at the UK, it was behind China and Japan in robotics. With sustained funding by the UK government, we are getting to a stage where infrastructure to support robotics is coming up in a big way.

A country like India requires sustained funding and brains and resources to not only reinvent the wheel but give a head start to robotics. The country needs to start with a baseline which is not about catching up but a baseline that is up there.

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