Teleoperated Robots

There’s a new home service robot available. Its video shows it partially filling a glass with water. It does this extremely slowly, and the glass is only about one third full, but it does it.

Then the camera pulls back and you can see a human being holding a wand. The human is controlling the motions of the robot with the wand. The robot is replicating the human actions.

The human being could have gotten himself a full glass of water in a small fraction of the time he spent making the robot put a couple of sips of water in the glass. The robot costs about $25,000. The maker is very excited about its new robot, pointing out that this robot is actually available for purchase right now!

This is a teleoperated robot.

What’s a teleoperated robot?

Teleoperated robots, sometimes called remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) or telerobots, are machines controlled by a human operator from a distance. Imagine piloting a robot as if it were your own body, even if it’s miles away! How it works:

  • Operator control: The operator uses a joystick, haptic feedback gloves, or other interfaces to send commands to the robot.
  • Communication link: These commands travel through a wired or wireless connection to the robot’s onboard computer.
  • Robot execution: The robot’s computer interprets the commands and controls its motors and actuators to perform the desired tasks.

Telerobots make sense in some situations. Surgery, for example, or search and rescue in hazardous environments. Underwater actions. Bomb defusing. Space exploration.

Probably not your kitchen.

Problems with telerobots

Latency is an issue with teleoperated robots. Initially, robotic surgery was envisioned as something that could allow surgery to take place on a battlefield. in fact, latency makes it impossible to use surgical robots at any distance at all. They are awesome — they allow surgeons to operate from an ergonomically designed seat and reduce the danger of fatigue, for example. They allow smaller incisions than if the surgeons had to get their hands into place, leading to shorter recovery times. These are definitely big wins.

The human interface is another challenge. Operators who can’t actually see the robot at work may be at a big disadvantage, and moving your body around while watching the robot duplicate your actions is rarely going to be useful in your home. After all, if you are standing right by the sink watching the robot clumsily, slowly, attempting to get you a glass of water, you might as well just get the glass of water yourself. Haptic interfaces are certainly being developed and improved, but the operator is not likely to have the kind of input he or she would have if they were actually present.

Control systems, the stuff we spend most of our time with, are not ready for telling your teleoperated robot to bring you a glass of water as you lounge by the pool, let alone making and bringing you an early cup of coffee in bed, which is something that might actually be worth paying for.

Finally, there are not that many situations in which it is cost-effective or even reasonable to have a human being and a robot performing the same actions at the same time. The point of service robots is that they do something you don’t want to do so that you can spend that time doing something you want to do. Imagine a robot vacuum that required you to stand over it and make pushing motions.

Maybe in the future this will work better. Right now, it’s certainly not worth $25,000.

The machine sin your facility probably are, though. When you need service and support for your Rexroth motion control systems, we can help. Avoid costly downtime with factory repair and reman. Call (479) 422-0390 for immediate assistance.

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