ANN ARBOR (WWJ) – Imagine a future in which cars safely drive themselves when you can’t or don’t want to. Where robot security machines virtually eliminate insurgencies and terrorism. Where robots make sure surgery is done right every time. Where robots make it possible to manufacture one item at the same unit price as mass manufacturing today.
Those wonders and more were on the table Monday at the second annual Michigan Robotics Day, held at the sprawling North Campus Research Complex of the University of Michigan.
Rick Jarman, president and CEO of the event’s sponsor, the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences in Ann Arbor, noted that attendance had more than doubled to more than 400 since last year’s inaugural Robotics Day. There were also dozens of demonstrators who weren’t around last year, from high school robotics teams to deadly serious defense robotics to whimsical ‘makers’ promoting the third annual Maker Faire Detroit July 27-28 at The Henry Ford in Dearborn — who brought a full size replica of Star Wars’ R2D2.
“Robots are becoming must-have tools — must-have tools on the battlefield, on the factory floor, in the operating room, on the farm, and hopefully soon on a highway near you,” Jarman said.
David Munson, dean of the University of Michigan College of Engineering, noted that the term ‘robot’ is a shortened version of Czech words for ‘monotonous, compulsory labor.’
“I’m not sure that’s still true,” Munson said. “Robots are fiendishly complex” today and providing vital services in surveillance, rescue and medicine.
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) attended the event, praising the growth of the robotics industry in Michigan, which is said is “exploding… for lots or reasons.”
An industry expert panel covered everything from robots in transportation to robots for economic development.
Including defense. Chuck Jacobus, president of Ann Arbor-based Cybernet Systems, said robot soldiers may just do for today’s brushfire wars and terrorism what nuclear weapons have done for huge nation-state wars — put them out of business. “The nuclear weapon has all but eliminated nation state war — you die if you do that,” Jacobus said. “I think robotics has the potential of doing the same thing to insurgencies — you just don’t want us to send our robots into your territory, because you will die.”
Jacobus said robotics offers opportunities to “carefully pick niches” for entrepreneurs, but that manufacturers need to remember that “there is nothing special about robots, they are just an extension of specialized machines.”
Jerry Lane, robotics program manager at Science Applications International Corp. pronounced Michigan “the center of robotics education.” And he said the high school robotics teams who attended Monday’s event should attend a June 8 – 11 Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition at Oakland University to find out “where you go next.” (More about the event at www.igvc.org.)
Mark Rosenblum of Soar Technology Inc., an Ann Arbor developer of intelligent systems for both military and civilian use, said the robotics industry is “where the cell phone and Internet industries were 20 or 25 years ago … people will eventually talk about their homes as being four or five robot homes, they way they now talk about cell phones or televisions.”
Jim McBride of Ford Motor Co. noted that “you don’t even directly control your vehicle any more. What you control is requests for certain performance through the accelerator or the brake or the steering, and those requests are mediated by computers who will come as close as possible to meeting your requests without making the wheels spin or violating pollution standards.”
McBride said autonomous automobiles are a lot bigger challenge than many people think because of the exact standards required. “You miss a runway by two meters on autopilot and it’s not that big a deal, that runway is 50 meters wide and nobody else is on it, but you miss by two meters in a car and you are going to smack into that semi in the oncoming lane.”
McBride said cars now kill their drivers about once in 70 million miles of driving. Autonomous vehicles won’t be accepted, he said, until they can beat that standard. He said one roadblock is when, how and how soon an autonomous car should wake a sleeping driver. “It takes more than a few minutes,” he siad. “It’s one of the reasons there aren’t systems on the market now.”
He said many cars now are adding “a lot of semi-autonomous features,” like adaptive cruise control or lane maintenance, “and people hardly notice it.”
In a whimsical answer to how to make robotics “sexier” to young students, Jim Overhold, chief scientist for robotics for the United States Army, made it clear: “Chicks dig robotics … and you can make piles of cash.” His entertaining presentation involved clips of autonomous vehicles on a freeway from the 1939 World’s Fair, and a 1950s Disney movie clip of cars the size of motor homes with advances like forward collision avoidance radar and rear-view TV cameras.