Robotics - No robot without electronics

A robot cannot exist without electronics and control technology. These areas of expertise will become increasingly important in the decades to come, says Stefano Stramigioli, professor of Advanced Robotics. ‘A robot’s entire nervous system and brain consist of electronics and control loops.’

Bird’s-eye perspective: operating on a multidisciplinary level

According to the professor, electronics and control technology are essential to the proper functioning of any robot. ‘How can I make that robot do what I want? Whether it involves sensory or motoric solutions, whether you want your robot to process images or operate and control things, it all revolves around electronics and control technology. Instead of working on a single component, you need a bird’s-eye perspective, a true systems approach that allows you to oversee the entire complex. You must understand how the whole system works together and therefore operate on a multidisciplinary level.’

Unlike their early predecessors, modern robots are not limited to performing only one task. Instead, they must be able to do a whole lot at once in real time. Take a robot vacuum cleaner, for example: it must not only discern where it is using visual technology, but it must also do its job immediately and effectively in that new space. ‘In addition to extremely rapid image processing, you also need aspects of control technology and possibly some form of artificial intelligence to perform the correct actions in an unfamiliar environment.’

Robotics in healthcare

A robot vacuum cleaner is child’s play for the experts in the Robotics and Mechatronics (RaM) department. They are working on inventions that will have a much larger impact on society. One example is a robot that not only combines the images of MRI and CT scans to determine the exact location of a tumour, but also inserts a needle in the perfect position to take a sample or – in the future – eliminate the tumour entirely. ‘You can fight cancer without making a single incision. We are already researching the applications of this technology on patients with breast cancer. It makes the treatment a lot more accurate, because the robot uses the scans to find the right spot much faster. Human doctors have less to do: the robot does its job immediately and in real time.’

The future lies in the hands of systems thinkers, Stramigioli knows. They can go wild in the state-of-the-art RaM lab. ‘We design systems for the robots of the future. People from all over the world have visited us here and every one of them was absolutely amazed by what they saw. It is the greatest playground imaginable for anyone interested in cutting-edge technology.’

Healthcare, inspection and maintenance and other application areas

The possible applications are endless. The University of Twente already has a reputation to uphold. Stramigioli himself is the vice-president of euRobotics and coordinator of two major innovation hubs in the fields of healthcare and inspection and maintenance. The UT is involved in projects where robots assist with police tasks. Researchers are also working on drones that not only visually inspect the rotor blades of a windmill, but can also instantly detect and transmit data about possible malfunctions. ‘That requires a robot that not only has image-processing capabilities, but can also process the data into useful information in real time and transmit it. On top of that, it must be able to maintain a steady flight path in the vicinity of enormous windmills. This is just one example of how electronics, photonics, physics and other fields come together.’

The professor believes it will be another fifty years or so before robots and artificial intelligence can create such complex and autonomous systems that humans barely have to lift a finger anymore. Horror or hallelujah? Stramigioli thinks it will be the latter: ‘You cannot stop the march of technological progress. These inventions will generate more wealth and give us all a lot more free time. It is up to our politicians to develop an economic system that will allow everyone to reap the rewards.’

Credits: U-Today, Frederike Krommendijk

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