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The Next Great Leap Forward: Integrating Robots with the Internet of Things?

Robots will become much more capable when connected to the Internet. There are contracts that the next evolution of the Internet of Things will be to integrate them into the network, which will open up exciting possibilities along the way, for example in replacing people at work in dangerous areas or underwater, but also inside the house, especially if people with disabilities live there

Robots integrated with Internet of Things devices will be able to work in dangerous places such as underwater. Illustration: shutterstock
Robots integrated with Internet of Things devices will be able to work in dangerous places such as underwater or in natural disaster areas. Illustration: shutterstock

Author: Mauro Dragon, Professor, Cognitive Robotics, Multi-Agent Systems and the Internet of Things, Harriot Watt University. Translation: Avi Blizovsky

The Internet of Things is a popular vision of objects with Internet connections sending information back and forth to make our lives easier and more convenient. They are already starting to appear in our homes through speakers and voice-activated systems, smart watches, tethering accessories, internet apps that measure our walking pace, and even entire cities. Connected devices will help increase the efficiency of transportation systems and defense against natural disasters.

At the same time, robots move steadily but outside the boundaries of production lines. They are starting to appear as guides in shopping malls and cruise ships, for example. As prices continue to fall and mechanical and artificial intelligence technologies continue to improve, we will use them more and more to make independent decisions in our homes, streets and workplaces.

Herein lies the big opportunity: robots will become much more capable when connected to the Internet. There are predictions that the next evolution of the Internet of Things will be to integrate them into the network, which will open up exciting possibilities along the way.

Home improvements

Even simple robots could become more useful when connected to a network, for example when they receive updates about their surroundings from sensors, or learn about the whereabouts of their users and the status of other devices in the vicinity. This will allow them to lend their bodies, eyes and ears to give a different smart environment in person, and be a user-friendly personality swallower. In particular, this may be especially useful when everyone is asleep, and certainly for people with disabilities.

Recently, a futuristic apartment was built at Harriot Watt University that allows you to explore these possibilities. This is one of several testing sites across the EU. The focus is on people with special needs and how robots can help them in using the connected devices in the smart home.
For example a doorbell that also has smart video features. A robot can find the person at home using sensors and approach them, then tell them who is at the door and why. A robot with these features will also be able to help hold video calls to family members or professional caregivers, including allowing them to make virtual visits in what is known as telepresence.

Similarly, they can monitor whether the oven does not stay on. Telephones or tablets are less reliable for such tasks, because they are fixed in place or difficult to hear. Similarly, the robot can amplify the alarm sound if the user can barely hear it.

Of course, voice assistants like Alexa or Google Home can provide some of the same services. But robots are much better at moving, sensing and interacting with the environment. They can also assist their users by pointing at objects or even more natural actions such as facial expressions. These social capabilities will contribute to the encouragement of the users and their consent to receive support in order to operate effectively."

In the business world, oil and gas companies are exploring the Internet of Things, and for example are conducting experiments with wireless sensors to collect information such as temperature, pressure and corrosion levels in order to detect and possibly predict defects in the equipment found on marine rigs.

In the future, robots will be able to be alert for problem areas and will be able to go and use sensors to check the integrity of pipes and wells, to make sure they are working as efficiently and safely as possible. Or they can place sensors or maintain them (for example battery replacement) in inaccessible areas. The Orca project of the Edinburgh Center for Robotics, which develops the necessary technology, brought together experts from more than thirty industrial companies with the aim of reducing costs and especially the risks for humans working in dangerous and remote places.

Working underwater is particularly challenging, as radio waves do not travel well under the sea. Autonomous underwater vehicles and sensors installed in the deep sea usually communicate using acoustic waves which are much slower. Acoustic communication devices are also much more expensive than those used above water.

This academic project develops a new generation of low-cost acoustic communication devices and tries to make underwater sensor networks more efficient. These devices will help underwater sensors and autonomous vehicles to collaborate in repair and maintenance underwater similar to what is already possible above water. This is in addition to other benefits such as helping vessels communicate with each other over longer distances and track their location.

Beyond oil and gas, IOT-based robots have similar potential in cleaning and maintaining bridges and large buildings as well as nuclear power plants. My colleague and I are also looking at options in areas such as agriculture, manufacturing, logistics and waste.

In order to achieve this, it is necessary for the research bodies involved in both fields - the Internet of Things and robotics, to share their knowledge and expertise. They are often disconnected from each other in different academic fields. We need to create a common community, as we did in the dedicated workshops at the European Robotics Forum.

Industry and universities should also examine the establishment of joint research projects. It is especially important to address safety and security issues - hackers taking control of a robot and using it to spy or cause damage, for example. Such problems can make potential customers wary and sabotage the market.

We also need systems that can work together, rather than in isolated applications. In this way, new and useful services can more quickly and efficiently without interfering with existing ones. If we can solve such problems and unite the worlds of robotics and the Internet of Things, it has the potential to change the world.

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