Lincoln Agritech takes a lead in robotic research

by Mike Isle

Worldwide, many research groups and companies are putting far-reaching research into the use and role of robots in the workplace. New Zealand is no exception. In fact, Lincoln Agritech is part of a National Science Challenge that takes a leading role, and research undertaken at Lincoln Agritech and the project partners will, in time, affect us all. In this two-part series, we talk to research head, Dr Armin Werner, to find out how.

Until recently, they were the stuff of movie myth: robots and robotic devices taking over our world as in The Matrix. At the opposite end of that movie spectrum, we have Data in Star Trek that represents a fully autonomous, human-like robot.

None of the two is more likely, as in a few years robots will stepwise be integrated as essential equipment in our daily life, not only at the workplace. Lincoln Agritech’s group manager in precision agriculture, Dr Armin Werner, tells us we have nothing to fear and a lot to gain from robots in the workplace.

Dr Werner and Lincoln Agritech from Lincoln University are taking a leading role in ‘Robotic Spearhead’, a $2 million project funded by the Science for Technological Innovation (SfTI) programme, with the aim of finding out how next-generation robots can work with humans in a safe and flexible manner.

“The intention is to advance the science required for a new generation of industrial robotic solutions,” said Dr Werner.

“These robots can provide enormous benefits to the primary and manufacturing sectors. Applications include indoor manufacturing such as 3D-printing, which is a technology advancing amazingly fast with robotics playing a big role in servicing the 3D-printers and in the assembly of 3D-printed products, which often will be very different to serve individual expectations of customers.

“Then there are applications in the outdoor sector — forestry being a prime example: it is a huge industry, but it can also be a highly dangerous one for workers, equipment and the environment. Planting and felling trees in harsh conditions, steep hills and remote areas could be done by robots in a few years.

“Robots can and will take some parts of these tasks, reducing hazards and automating some of the tasks such as assessing the specific situation of the tree to be felled, the environment around the tree, the slope, and calculating the direction the tree is to be felled,” Dr Werner predicts.

New Zealand could lead the way in such development and provide the scientific knowledge and the technical solutions for such applications.

“New Zealand needs affordable, flexible robots that can be cost-efficient even for small lots in manufacturing goods and can be easily adapted to new tasks.

“The new knowledge and methods, the new science we want to provide with the Robotics Spearhead project, will allow such highly-adaptable and flexible robots.

“Such technical possibilities could give New Zealand an advantage in entering and staying in certain markets where production of some goods could become too expensive to produce in NZ.“ Dr Werner said.

“These requirements are not unique to New Zealand. Other regions in the world would appreciate such technology as well, creating options for New Zealand to export such highly-flexible and adaptable robots.”

Dr Werner knows that globally he and his team are not alone, and the race toward robotic development is extremely competitive.

“Other regions in the world are handling such demands with large investments in science and technology.”

However, Dr Werner believes New Zealand still needs to find its own “Kiwi-specific” way, and the chances of the country taking a lead role in that field are extremely promising. “The feedback we are getting is that industry leaders are confident we will prepare the future for new robotic solutions for new businesses many of which do not exist or are even imagined.

“Our work is leading to technologies in five to eight years from now. But, we cannot tell exactly what that future will look like. What we do know, though, is that we have to prepare the scientific knowledge to enable that future.”

In the second part of our series, Robotics in the Workplace, we examine the role of robots in specific industries and answer two of the more common questions regarding robots: will they be a help or hindrance, and, will they take our jobs? That is in next week’s The Record.