Web Telerobotic Background


This chapter addresses the question of why robotics has failed to achieve the ambitions and expectations of the early pioneers in the field. A method is then suggested for circumventing some of the problems encountered in robotics which sets the context for the implementation of a web telerobot.

The beginning of robotics

The Czech playwright Karel Capek (pronounced "chop'ek") is usually credited with inventing the word 'robot' from the Polish and Czeck word "robota" which means compulsory labour (Lundquist June 1998). The use of the word 'Robot' was introduced by his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) which opened in Prague in January 1921 (Dowling 1993).

A scene from one of the early productions of R.U.R. (Paulos 1995a)
Figure 1

In the play, a man named Rossum runs a factory that makes robots by chemical means which turn out to be excellent workers. At first the products sell extremely well but later the robots become more advanced and begin to think for themselves. Eventually they rise up to overcome their human masters. This has set the scene for much of the subsequent enthusiasm and fear surrounding real robots. One of the earliest mechanical robot devices was a mechanical lion built around 1500 by Leonardo Da Vinci. Since then, many other mechanical devices have appeared imitating activities from life. Nikola Tesla built the first teleoperated radio controlled vehicles in the1890's. Tesla is better known as the inventor of the induction motor, AC power transmission, and numerous other electrical devices (Dowling 1993). The 1932 London Radio Exhibition featured several robots that could bow, make speeches and read newspapers (Marsh 1982:62). According to Dowling (1993) the first automata in the research community were probably Grey Walter's machina (1940's).

The first industrial modern robots were the Unimates developed by George Devol and Joe Engleberger in the late 50's and early 60's.

Unimate - The first industrial robot
Figure 2

The first robotics related patents were taken out by Devol for parts transfer machines but it was Engleberger who formed the company 'Unimation' and who was the first to market robots. Consequently, Engleberger has been called the 'father of robotics'. The first robot to work in a factory was installed by Engelberger in 1961 for unloading hot castings from a die casting machine in a car factory run by General Motors at Trenton, New Jersey. Robots differed from existing factory automation by being flexible rather than purpose built. They were intended to be general purpose machines suitable for a range of tasks as with a human worker. Growth was slow for some years thereafter, with no more than 700 machines worldwide by 1970. The 1970's however saw substantial growth in the use of industrial robots with about 8,000 robots worldwide by 1978 (Marsh 1982:67).

What was predicted for robotics

Robotics expanded in the late 70's and early 80's when it was widely believed that robots would revolutionise manufacturing. Much was written on robotics and there was almost universal optimism in the future of robotics. They were considered the key to flexible manufacturing.

Previously machines were specialised. They performed a specific function or class of functions (eg. milling, drilling, turning etc). Most machines were manually controlled and generally the more automated the machine, the more specific the task it could accomplish. With robots, on the other hand, flexible manufacturing was feasible. The same machine could be used for many different tasks requiring only reprogramming and perhaps the fitting of a different tool or end-effector. This would allow short production runs, and make it easy to tailor basic products to each customer's requirements. In a well-argued book, Ullrich (1983) predicts that for small batches, human labour would be cheaper and for large batches purpose built automation would be ideal. The opportunity for robotics would lie in the mid range where they would provide the cheapest production solution as illustrated in Figure 3.

The shaded area shows the niche in manufacturing that Ullrich believed robots would fill. For small batches, human labour would be cheaper and for large batches purpose built automation would be ideal. In the mid range, robots would provide the cheapest production solution. (Ullrich 1983:39)
Figure 3

Ullrich (1983), provides sales figures for robots in the USA and presents sales predictions for the next ten years. Ullrich states sales to be US$100 million in 1980, US$155 million in 1981 and estimates sales of between US$3.5 billion and US$5 billion by 1992 (Ullrich 1983:39). He states that "till now the majority of robots employed in this country have been used in two types of applications - spot welding and materials handling. However the majority of robots purchased by 1990 will be assigned to materials handling and assembly work." (Ullrich 1983:50). "The implication ...is that the present market for assembly and materials handling robots of approximately US$80 million per year in sales will grow, at the outside to, US$3.7 billion per year by 1992." (Ullrich 1983:50). The major motivation for this growth would be reduced labour costs.

Osborne (1983) describes the robots used in the early 1980's, their applications and fairly simple control systems and then goes on to discuss potential applications and the likely effect on labour relations. Zeldman (1984) presents similar arguments and is another example of the prevailing views of the time. There was tremendous optimism in the impact that robots would have on manufacturing, predictions of explosive growth, and an expectation that future robots would be extremely versatile.

Much discussion was directed towards the social impact that this revolution would bring and how we could handle the leisure age which it heralded. Marsh (1982) promoted manufacturing robots as the saviours of Britain. He begins with the history of industrialisation and then projects forward on the assumption that robots represent the next phase of the revolution. Simons (1980) thought it likely that intelligent, versatile robots would emerge and that this would have a major impact on industry, education, medicine and activities in the home. He believed that "there will be consequences for our attitudes to human creativity and intelligence". He acknowledged the limitations of existing robots and the impossibility of existing robots carrying out simple tasks that people perform effortlessly. However, he felt that "it seems highly likely" that people already alive would encounter machines at least as intelligent and capable as themselves.

Although commentators differed as to the rate at which robotics would be taken up and what the societal impacts would be, there was a strong consensus that humankind was at the beginning of a robot age, that the near future would see substantial growth in robot numbers and that the impact on society would be significant.

What has occured with robotics

Robot growth has been substantial since Ullrich's (1983:39) predictions. This is most notable in Japan where robot usage has been higher than any other nation. Figure 4 illustrates the numbers of robots per 10,000 employees in industry in Japan between 1981 and 1995.

The number of robots in Japanese industry is higher than other nations. Numbers continue to increase but the growth rate is declining (Robotics and Europe 1997).
Figure 4

The number of robots in Japanese industry has expanded every year for this period. The growth rate, however, has declined in most years and the rate of growth is small from 1993 to 1995. Other nations where robot usage is high are Sweden, Germany, Italy and Korea but remains considerably lower than Japan where, in 1995, the number of robots per 10,000 employees in industry is more than three times higher than the next largest country, Korea. The number of robots employed per 10,000 employees in industry in Sweden, Germany, Italy and Korea is shown in Figure 5.
The number of robots in use in Sweden, Italy Germany and Korea is less than a third of the numbers used in Japan. Additionally, the period of high growth differs between nations (Robotics and Europe 1997).
Figure 5

Figure 5 also shows that the period of high growth in the use of robots has occured later in some nations. Sweden had a high number of robots in use by 1981 but has experienced slow growth since. By contrast, relatively few robots were used in Korea until 1990 but then five years of high growth has lifted the number of robots in industry to higher levels than most other countries. The differences between countries are explained partly by substantial government promotion and support for robot technology in some countries and not others. The best example is Japan where the government has provided special leasing arrangements, depreciation rates, tax reductions, loans, and grants for robotic initiatives. Japanese government funded research projects include "Robots in Extreme-Environments" which ended in March 1991 and focused on robot use in nuclear power plants, oceans, disasters, petroleum ($145million US) and "Micromachine Technology", 1991-2001 ($181million US) to develop microtechnologies for medical and industrial applications (Kahaner 1991). Such support is likely to explain the higher numbers of robots in Japan.

In addition, the European Community has provided substantial support for robotics which is a major component of three framework programs: 1984-87, 1987-91, and 1990-94. The funding for the third framework program was US$6,840 million (Kahaner 1993). Italy had a national program called the Italian Targeted Project on Robotics funded by the National Research Council over 5 years commencing in 1989 with funding of US$52 million (Cugini et al. 1996). Another country with substantial government sponsorship for automation is Singapore with incentives (Deloitte & Touche 1994) including:-

  • The Investment Allowance Scheme, a tax incentive scheme that provides an allowance of up to 50% of the cost of new automation machinery.
  • The Design for Automation Scheme which provides grants of up to 70% of approved costs
  • The Extended Automation Leasing Scheme provides low-interest financing of automation investment.
  • The Industry-Wide Automation Development Program provides grants of up to 70% of approved project costs.

This has led to sales in Singapore of 8000 robots in 1995, (Robotics and Europe 1997) a significant proportion being for the assembly of disk drives.

It seems likely that, over time, the differences in robot usage between countries will diminish as government support is reduced and the more successful applications are adopted throughout the world. As the use of robot technology is continuing to increase, the tendency will be for the countries with lower robot densities in manufacturing to approach those with higher densities.

Investment in robotics can also be compared to investment in machine tools and investment levels generally. Figure 6 shows the relationship between the percentage change in output, general investment levels, machine tool investment and robot investment in the USA.

World Industrial Robots 1996 (Robotics and Europe 1997)
Figure 6

Prior to 1981 rates of growth in investment generally and machine tool investment were high. Growth rates of investment in industrial robots were greater than fifty percent annually. With the recession of 1983, investment contracted at an annual rate of 20% generally and machine tool investment contracted at close to 40% but industrial robotics maintained a 20% growth rate. As general investment bounced back in 1984, investment in industrial robotics soared again. However, in 1987, everything changed. Investment in machine tools again contracted but investment in industrial robotics contracted even more sharply reaching negative 30%. Investment growth became positive again in 1988 and from then on investment in industrial robotics has largely matched the investment trends in machine tools. Interestingly, the two periods of high growth in robot investment coincided with declines in the growth rate of gross output.

Robotics is still growing at a healthy rate but is now a maturing industry. Robots have never achieved the generality of purpose originally anticipated, however machine tools and materials handling equipment have become more 'robot like' as sophistication increases so that the boundaries between robots, machine tools and materials handling equipment are blurring. Table 1 shows the market for robots in the major industrial countries and worldwide in 1993 and 1995. This enables a comparison with Ullrich's predictions of 1983.

The Market for Robots US$ millions
                                     1993 1995
Japan 1,788 2,487
USA 559 898
Germany 391 577
Italy 173 232
France 71 116
UK 32 54
Subtotal 3,015 4,364
Total World 3,700 5,700

World Industrial Robots 1996 (Robotics and Europe 1997)
Table 1

The sales figures for robots show that Ullrich's predictions for the market have never been realised. In 1993, US sales reached half a billion dollars compared with Ullrich's predictions of US$3.5 billion to US$5 billion by 1992. This suggests that Ullrich (1983:39) was publishing towards the end of the large growth phase in US robot investment rather than at the beginning as he supposed. The golden age of growth in industrial robotics finished in the USA in 1987. However Table 1 also shows that robot sales worldwide continue to expand at a healthy rate with more than 50% growth in sales between 1993 and 1995.

The sales figures show the value of robots sold but the numbers sold also depends on the unit cost. Table 2 illustrates changes in the unit price of robots between 1991 and 1995.

Unit Price of Robots US$1,000
                              1991 1995
USA 105 88
Germany 103 79
Italy 131 74
France 115 84
UK 79 68
Total 108 82

World Industrial Robots 1996 (Robotics and Europe 1997)
Table 2

As shown above the unit price of robots is declining having decreased by 24% between 1991 and 1995. Therefore, the increase in numbers of robots sold between 1991 and 1995 worldwide is greater than would be indicated from the sales data alone. The drop in unit costs is also consistent with a maturing industry. The operational stock of robots depends on the accumulated sales less the number of robots retired from service. Table 3 presents figures on the number of units for the six major industrialised countries individually and totally and for East and West Europe, Asia and worldwide.

                Operational Stock of Robots                

1000 Units 1995 Growth Rate 1995/94
Japan 387 2.7
USA 66 16.1
Germany 51 13.3
Italy 23 11.5
France 13 8
UK 8 2.4
Big Six 550 5.6
W Europe-8 22 12.7
E Europe-6 1 11.1
Asia-4 38 40.7
World 650 6.2

World Industrial Robots 1996 (Robotics and Europe 1997)
Table 3

Table 3 shows that by 1995 there was a worldwide operational stock of 650,000 robots worldwide and the majority of the operational robots were in advanced industrialised countries, with more than half in Japan alone. However, it also shows the high growth rates were in Asia where the operational stock is low. This is consistent with Figure 5, which also showed high growth rates occurring at different times in different nations.

An alternative to comparing nations for the level of robot usage is to compare industries. This comparison is made in Figure 7 which shows robot usage per 10,000 employees in automotive, electrical, machinery, metal products, mechanical and electrical and other manufacturing industries in a variety of countries.

World Industrial Robots 1996 (Robotics and Europe 1997)
Figure 7

Figure 7 shows that in 1994 the number of robots per employee was lower overall for non automotive manufacturing. It is possible that the greater use of robots in the automotive industry is a historical legacy of their early use in this sector. However, the capital investment required for automotive manufacture is much greater than many other forms of manufacture and the large capital cost of robots may be less of a disincentive to a more complete adoption of the technology than in other manufacturing industries. As the number of robots employed continues to increase and the cost of robot technology continues to decline it is likely that the use of robot technology in other industries will approach the levels achieved in the automotive industry.

It was anticipated by Marsh (1982), Ullrich (1983), Osborne (1983), Zeldman (1984), and others that the driving force for growth would be cost saving from the replacement of human labour. This initiated the public interest in robotics at the time, which focussed on ideas of reduced future requirements for human labour and the consequent social impacts. Almost all robotic publications at the time, including those cited above, discussed the social impact of the widespread redundancy of human labour.

In 1993, at the 24th ISIR Special Session on National Policy for Promotion of R&D and Diffusion/Popularization of Industrial Robots, the focus remained on the labour related cost savings that could be achieved with robotics. Mr. Toshio Adachi (Ministry of International Trade and Industry Japan) predicted (Kahaner 1993) that the annual rate of 0.4% labor growth will begin to shrink from 1994 to 2000. The prospect for Japan was:-

  • A steady decline in the labor force necessitating more reliance on robots.
  • An increasing demand for preventing industrial accidents.
  • A move towards shorter labour hours.

Also A/Prof. Aun-Neow Poo (Director, Post-Graduate School of Engineering, National University of Singapore) explained "In the early 1980s, in order to maximise its human resources (Singapore's only resource) and to remain competitive, Singapore directed its efforts towards attracting more high-value-added, capital- and skills-intensive industries… It was clear (in the early 1980s) that Singapore will have to increasingly compete on productivity and quality rather than on low-cost labor. The government (through the Economic Development Board, EDB, and the Singapore Science Council - now known as the National Science and Technology Board, NSTB) began to aggressively promote automation, high-technology and R&D as a major goal of its economic policy" (Kahaner 1993).

But the discussion at the ISIR special session was more sober than in previous years. Gone were the speculative debates on the anticipated dramatic social change. By 1993, it could be seen that the versatility and social impact of robotics had previously been over-estimated.

At the 27th ISIR in 1996, the plenary session was devoted to a review of achievements in robotics and likely future directions. Schraft and Merklinger (1996), in their contribution to this session, documented the change in public attitude to robotics. "In this context the expectations and even apprehensions toward the first industrial robots were immense. They were expected to solve almost any problem with ease and excellence". This was contrasted with the situation in 1996 where "public opinion shows little interest in robotics" however the attitude of unions towards industrial robots has changed. Union leaders in Germany regard automation and robotics as vital to keep their fields of industry competitive and therefore to maintaining employment. Schraft and Merklinger conclude that "the development of industrial robots has achieved a high degree of maturity" and suggest a number of new areas that seemed promising including construction, agriculture, environmental protection and the care-taking sector. Many of these application areas can be broadly termed service robotics and the opportunities for service robotics was a theme of the session and was particularly emphasised by Joseph Engelberger in the keynote speech. The idea of service robotics has come into prominence in more recent years, being the theme of conferences such as Field and Service Robotics 97 held at the Australian National University Canberra in December 1997. The prospect for high growth in service robotics is considered in the following section.

Service robots - will they be the new revolution?

Many robotics practitioners envisage increasing opportunities for growth in the area of service robots, operating outside industrial environments. The strongest proponent of his view is the 'father of robotics', Joseph Engelberger. Engelberger's 1989 book, Robotics In Service, was a response to a study sponsored by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers in 1985 which forecasted areas of robot application through to 1995. This study suggested that sales outside proven factory jobs would amount to less than 1% of the market. Engelberger, however, claimed that applications outside traditional industrial environments would constitute the largest class of robot applications by 1995. Although this has not happened, the book has much to say that is still pertinent. This is partly because of Engelberger's status and partly because he sets out the philosophical basis that has underpinned his own efforts and those of many other researchers in succeeding years. The first part of Engelberger's book contains a discussion of the current state of robot technology and the second part is dedicated to service applications. He is very positive about the opportunities for service robots stating that "before 1995 it may dawn on the Robotics Industry Association that service robots will surely outstrip industrial robots. It is quite conceivable that one or more of the applications described below will generate larger sales volumes than all industrial applications." (Engelberger 1989:129). Engelberger then considers a number of potential applications which are described and compared with later developments in the following sections. Also included is a review of the Autonomous Land Vehicle project which is another ambitious service application.

Autonomous land vehicle project

The Autonomous Land Vehicle Project, sponsored by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, was intended to serve as a test bed for the ongoing research on mobile robots relating to perception and planning (Burger and Bhanu 1992:2). See Figure 8.

The concept envisaged at the early stages of the Autonomous Land Vehicle Project as illustrated by Burger and Banhu (Burger and Bhanu 1992).
Figure 8

As described by Burger and Banhu (1992), it is an attempt to use a vision system to form a model of an environment which is then used to control an Autonomous Land Vehicle. The environment model is generated from images captured by a camera moves through the scene with the vehicle. At the stage reported, all motion was inferred from image analysis rather than measuring vehicle forward movement by odometry or other means. The motion flow field is analysed to estimate the robots motion, reconstruct the 3D scene and evaluate the motion of individual objects in the scene. Vehicle motion is determined by matching features in successive images with displacement vectors. A qualitative model of the environment is constructed and dynamically modified. Where more than one interpretation is possible, multiple models are constructed and updated until disproved. Ways of reducing the large number of alternative models that can develop were considered by Burger and Banhu. They suggested that object recognition would aid in determining which features are on the one object and for providing constraints on the interpretation, depending on the properties of the object but this is not implemented in the system developed. The vision system developed was not actually used in real time and feature tracking between images was done manually. This provides a good example where the magnitude of the task precludes application of the techniques developed.

The project has continued in a number of guises, the most recent being the Unmanned Ground Vehicle Demo II program which is described by Thorpe (1997) after its completion in September 1997. At the final demonstration, "two vehicles demonstrated cooperative cross country mobility. They were given a series of 6 locations to visit, and jointly decide on the optimal assignment of goals to vehicles, given what they knew about the terrain. As they moved, they discovered obstacles that were not in their pre-mission map. Navlab 2 used a real time stereo machine for obstacle detection, and Navlab 4 used a new scanning laser range finder…The vehicles avoided the local obstacles, entered them into their maps, replanned the optimal trajectories to the goal, transmitted the updated maps to their sister vehicle, and re-evaluated the assignment of goals." The techniques used to control the two vehicles in the successful demonstration in 1997 were very different from those described by Burger and Banhu in 1992 and the project team has been unable to develop an autonomous land vehicle to a point where it is sufficiently flexible, robust and economical for military use.

The project originally concentrated on cross-country driving and military missions, but has been subsumed into a project funded by the US Department of Transportation concentrating on highway vehicles. This work is undertaken as part of the of the National Automated Highway Systems Consortium (NAHSC) which commenced development of a prototype Automated Highway in 1994 (Thorp 1997). A major milestone for the automated highway project was the requirement, in 1997, to demonstrate 'proof of technical feasibility'. "In the five weeks of preparing the demo and four days of actual runs, the CMU team logged 12,500 autonomous miles, and carried 1400 passengers. A small fraction, less than 1% were run in manual mode due to various system glitches" (Thorp 1997). This suggests that the technical issues are very nearly solved which would lead some to think that such systems would be in use in the near future. Nevertheless, the next steps in the project plan involve refining the designs, selecting among different functions and technologies, and building a prototype system by the year 2002 and Thorpe (1997), expressed doubt that the project plan will be achieved. The issues that remain to be solved include accommodating adverse weather, road conditions, managing the transfer between driver and autonomous control, interacting with other vehicles, reliability, safety and avoiding the glitches.

Fast food service

In the early 1960s, AMF (a large American ten pin bowling company), following success with its automatic pin spotters, attempted to create an automatic fast food restaurant. Millions of dollars went into AMFARE yet it was a failure. In 1989, Engelberger felt that the time was then right for AMFARE believing it would not fail thirty years after the first attempt. In the ten years since then, automation has in fact increased in fast food outlets but much of this equipment is purpose built rather than of the general purpose type generally considered to be robotics.


Although farm automation has revolutionised the production of food, "In general the equipment is highly specialised and purpose built but it is not robotic in nature" (Engelberger 1989:152). Engelberger argued, there are jobs on the farm suitable for automation with programmable and sensate robotic equipment. He cites two examples; sheep shearing and fruit picking. Fruit picking has not been robotised by 1998 and sheep shearing remains one of the most ambitious robotics applications developed but not adopted.

Trevelyan provided an interesting study of this project (Trevelyan 1992). The robot was required to shear sheep of varying sizes and shapes, which required adaptive control. The project was conceived in 1972 when Australian Merino Wool Harvesting (AMWH), a woolgrower based organisation, commenced tentative work. In 1975 the CSIRO [ ] produced a simple automated machine that could strike shearing blows along the back of a sheep. Work commenced at the University of Western Australia in 1976 and the AMWH stepped up their work in late 1980 changing their name to Merino Wool Harvesting (MWH) in 1981. Their plan was to build a laboratory robot followed by a field trial version within 18 months (Trevelyan 1992:197). From this time, the University of Western Australia research effort and that of MWH operated in competition. MWH failed in August 1990 after spending approximately A$10.5 million. The University of Western Australia spent nearly A$7 million between 1976 and 1993 and demonstrated fully automatic shearing taking about 17 minutes for each sheep. The laboratory prototype system performed over 200 demonstrations between 1989 and 1993.

SM Robot: A part of the UWA shearing system. (Trevelyan 1992)
Figure 9

In 1993 estimates were that between A$20 million and A$35 million was required to fully commercialise the concept (Trevelyan 1996). The wool industry in Australia spends at least $400 million (Trevelyan 1992:373) on shearing annually and in these terms and that of large engineering projects the investment required is not large. The economic prospects of the project, however, have not been sufficiently attractive to overcome the perceived risks associated with radical changes in the industry. Instead, a small company has begun to adapt the sheep handling equipment developed in conjunction with the robot for use in manual shearing.

Some farming applications have been developed and are in use. Some examples are Billingsley's simple but effective mobile robot for training horses illustrated in Figure 10 and automatic guidance of agricultural vehicles to relieve the driver of the stressful task of maintaining accurate steering with respect to the plants (Billingsley and Schoenfisch 1997).

Plan view and Side view of Robocow mechanism. (Billingsley et al. 1997)
Figure 10

Automotive fuel filling

In 1989, Engelberger argued that the only obstacle to robotic refuelling of motor vehicles was lack of imagination and not technological impediment. Numerous efforts have been made to automate the task of vehicle refuelling that on the surface appears simple. In 1996, three robotic fuel filling systems were reported to be in use (Busse 1996) but all three are limited to a few vehicle types and require extensive modification of the vehicle fuelling mechanisms. The systems are used by large fleet owners and there seems little likelihood that such systems will be used generally. Schraft et al (1996) have developed a different system which requires only a special filler cap costing a few dollars to be fitted to the automobile and the addition of a transponder to provide vehicle type identification. It can refuel over 80% of vehicles which have the filler cap on the right hand side of the vehicle. To accommodate the non-standard nature of automobile fuel filling they have had to overcome a variety of technical issues including vehicle identification and localisation, device kinematics, sensing and docking and safety issues. However, the issues of cost and convincing the service station operators and ultimately the public to use the system remains.

Commercial cleaning

This is an application to which many researchers have turned their attention including a project by Jung et al (1997). Several devices have been produced. As Engelberger recognised, all the technical issues required for tasks like floor cleaning are solvable, but the issue of cost remains. Producing a reliable and efficient device which is cheap enough to be economically viable is the challenge. As Engelberger observed, "the environment of the average private home is likely to be more cluttered and less predictable than that of a factory or supermarket…One is therefore justified in expecting janitorial robotics to reach commercial success before we see full-fledged autonomous household robots in service" (Engelberger 1989:146). As janitorial robotics is still not widespread, household devices are probably a long way off.

One problem for robot cleaner developers is that large open areas are most amenable to robotic solutions but they can be already cleaned economically with ride on cleaners. Interestingly, the most successful automatic cleaning device to appear in recent times is the "Creepy Crawly" swimming pool vacuum cleaner. This very effective device uses the opposite approach to that advocated by Engelberger. Rather than using sophisticated sensing and control, it has a simple hydraulic motor driving the cleaning head forward and an ingenious mechanical design that varies its direction in a random manner so that, eventually, the entire pool is vacuumed.

Jobs in hazardous environments

Space is an application area to which Engelberger devotes considerable attention. In space, robotics and in particular telerobotics has had great success in the intervening years. The recent investigation of Mars by Sojourner (see Figure 11) captured the attention of the world more than any other activity in space has done for a considerable time.

The Sojourner. A robotic application that has proved to be very successful (Goodall 1995)
Figure 11

The economics of robotics in space are much more favourable than terrestrial applications due to the inordinate cost of transporting people into space and sustaining them in the hostile environment. This suggests that the development and use of robots in space is likely to increase.

Engelberger argues, in 1989, that underwater vehicles provide another area of opportunity for service robotics. He describes some existing Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV's) and states "the next step on the robotic road is to give the underwater vehicles one or more arms that can be used by shipboard operators in the teleoperator mode"(Engelberger 1989:191-196). In 1998, teleoperated robotic arms are a routine ROV attachment and there are several companies selling and operating ROV equipment for undersea drill support, general construction, inspection and maintenance tasks. Two models sold by Perry Tritech are illustrated in Figure 12. These vehicles are expensive, ranging from US$500,000 to US$5,000,000 for a vehicle fitted with heavy duty manipulators and hydraulic tooling.

Medium size ROVs with manipulators from the extensive Pery Tritech Range (Tritech 1998)
Figure 12

The increasing popularity of ROVs has arisen from the need to replace or have a backup for the deep sea diver, which is primarily for safety as operating depths are increased.

Underground mining was seen by Engelberger (1989:191-196) as a fertile application area. He particularly emphasised the applicability of the load haul dump (LHD) operation for robotising. Such a vehicle is illustrated in Figure 13.

A Load Haul Dump Vehicle (LHD) used in underground mining.
Figure 13

The LHD collects material from the newly blasted mine face where the roof is unsupported and dangerous. A bucket load is carried along a tunnel, an operation known as tramming, and dumped on a conveyor to carry the material to the surface. Each cycle generally takes about one minute.

There are now many mines where the operator has been removed from the LHD. In the simplest systems such as those sold by Remote Control Technologies in Perth, Australia, the operator observes the vehicle from a safe distance and works the vehicle controls from a hand held device. A system known as RoboMiner (Figure 15) sold by Automated Mining Systems Inc. of Canada uses teleoperation from a remote operator station (Figure 14).

The Operators Station of the teleoperated LHD System sold by Automated Mining Systems Inc. of Canada (1998)
Figure 14

A Teleoperated LHD at work and built by Automated Mining Systems Inc. of Canada (1998)
Figure 15

At Mount ISA Mines in Queensland, Australia, a separately developed teleoperated LHD vehicle system is in operation. During 1998, the system is being upgraded to reduce the load on the LHD operator by automating the tramming portion of the cycle in a joint project between the CSIRO and the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (Dissanayake et al. 1997). The vehicle will still be teleoperated but a portion of the cycle will be automated. Interestingly the path being followed in the automation of this application is incremental. This contrasts with the manual to autonomous step proposed for the the Sheep Shearing and Autonomous Land Vehicle projects.

Other service robot applications

Engelberger regarded the building industry as suitable for robotic solutions. Since 1989, some systems have been built, others attempted and some researchers continue to investigate robotics for building, for example O'Brien (1997) who has proposed a unified theory of construction activity. However building is a field on which robotics has had little impact.

Security services provide another application which Engelberger regarded as suitable for robotisation. Many research systems for this purpose have been built and some marketed. These systems are a mobile platform with sensors that report to a human when an alert condition is detected. Robot security services compete with fixed devices including video cameras, smoke detectors and intrusion sensors that can be quite cheap to install and operate. Existing systems use sensors linked to a central station, sometimes through radio links or high frequency signals transmitted through the power lines thereby obviating the need to install cabling. Therefore, it is a challenge to build a mobile sensate device that can compete with these systems.

Engelberger regarded aiding the handicapped and elderly as another suitable application including help with locomotion, fetching and carrying and preparing meals. This remains an area where robotics has made few inroads.

Household robots

The final chapter of Robotics in Service was devoted to domestic robots, which Engelberger regarded as "the penultimate robot" (Engelberger 1989:218). He describes a number of personal robots that were sold in the early 1980's: "Their appearance was followed by a flurry of personal bankruptcies…The robot was doomed by a gross discrepancy between hype and actual capability." They sold in the price range US$1,500-US$8,000. As a tool they were useless and as a toy too costly. He considers they should be able to:-

  • Vacuum floors
  • Scrub floors
  • Wash windows
  • Set table
  • Clear table
  • Wash dishes
  • Cook convenience foods
  • Maintain appliances
  • Do laundry
  • Clean bathrooms
  • Shovel snow
  • Cut grass
  • Security
  • Firefighting
  • Store and log food, tools etc.
  • Geriatric companion

According to Engelberger the primary reason for the failure of household robots was that the level of microcomputer power available at the time limited their intelligence. He concludes that: "by the time this book is published the technology reported will have already been enhanced. By the time that development is complete for a robot that is physically able to cope with a household, the sensory, control and AI attributes available will make the robotic automaton the servant of choice" (Engelberger 1989:233-234). While recognising that there were still difficulties to overcome, Engelberger believed that such a device could be built economically in the near future. However, it still requires some imagination to predict that such devices will be in available soon, even in 1998.

Surgeons assistant

Engelberger (1989:130-133) describes an existing surgical application where a robot is used to position a probe for neurosurgery and speculates on the use of robots for orthopaedics: "Could robots be used in orthopaedics for pinning broken hips?" (Engelberger 1989:132) In fact robots are now routinely used in hip replacement surgery to manipulate the cutting tool that creates the socket for the new hip. This application is primarily free form machining.

Nursing assistant

The robotic nurse's aide would carry out lower level tasks thus relieving nurses of the routine chores. Engelberger was sufficiently confident in the utility of this application that after 1989, his company Transitions Research Corporation, devoted most of its efforts to developing and marketing a robotic nurse's aide. The company went public in 1996 as HelpMate Robotics Inc., signalling its shift from general robotics research to the aggressive development, marketing and sales of its flagship product, the HelpMate Robot. HelpMate Robotics Inc is a publicly listed company traded on the United States NASDAQ Bulletin Board. Helpmate was expected to accept voice commands and a typical task envisaged, was the fetch and carry task shown in Figure 16.

A typical task proposed for the HelpMate robot by Engelberger prior to its development in 1989. The device marketed could not perform this task (Engelberger 1989:137).
Figure 16

The device Engelberger planned to develop is shown in Figure 17 and the device actually marketed is shown in Figure 18. Using sensory technology and a preprogrammed map of the facility, HelpMate robots can avoid obstacles, make instantaneous stops, and call elevators via radio link to travel between floors.
Proposed design of HelpMate while in the concept stage (Engelberger 1989:136).
Figure 17

Several examples of the HelpMate in operation transporting food, medical records, drugs and other supplies. The product marketed is simpler and significantly different to the original concept (Engelberger 1998).
Figure 18

However, a comparison of Figure 17 and Figure 18 shows the final product was considerably less sophisticated than originally envisaged. The robot speaks but does not accept voice commands. Instead, HelpMate is dispatched to stations by the push of a button and it has no manipulator. Moreover, the fetch and carry task of Figure 16 had to be simplified so that a human loads and unloads the compartments in the robot. Despite Engelberger's leadership in the robotics field, he found, like the household robot companies of the 1980s and many other robotics practitioners, that it was easier to modify the application than it was to build a sufficiently flexible robot to handle the complete application.

In 1997, there were 109 Helpmates in service in US and Canadian hospitals. Despite building simpler robots than originally planned, the HelpMates are not cheap. Persuading hospitals to purchase or lease the robots has proved to be difficult and the large number in use was achieved by renting rather than selling. This imposed severe strain on the company's working capital especially since the rental fees were below cost and Helpmate Robotics at the time of its 1997 annual report had a negative net worth of US$369,000 (HelpMate Robotics Inc 1998b). Since the 1997 annual report, the share price has continued to decline from around US$1.00 to under US$0.20 in June 1998.

An independent report (Rossetti and Felder 1998) has indicated that the robots can be significantly cheaper than human couriers for both pharmacy and clinical laboratory delivery but the comparison is not simple. For example, a single robot will be unacceptably slower than a courier, so that several robots are needed to replace a single courier. Robot unit costs reduce as more are employed; therefore, the economics become positive for the robots when they are assigned more tasks in a large hospital. In one modelled scenario, six robots were employed to replace three couriers providing both pharmacy and clinical delivery services. The combined delivery had a 75% decrease in cost and a 38% decrease in delivery variability while virtually matching the average delivery time of the courier. They conclude that "through simulation we were clearly able to demonstrate that mobile robots can cost effectively meet the delivery requirements of mid-sized hospitals" (Rossetti and Felder 1998). However most hospitals using HelpMates have only one robot and the largest number, in seven hospitals, is only three (HelpMate Robotics Inc 1998a).

Service robots discussion

The predictions of Engelberger have been compared with developments in robotics in the following ten years. This has contemporary relevance because many of the ideas put forward by Engelberger are mainstream in today's robotics research community and all the areas suggested by Engelberger have attracted the interest of researchers. Robots have been successfully applied in some service applications including space and undersea remotely operated vehicles. As well, robots are commonly used for hip replacement surgery and mines have adopted teleoperated control of underground mining equipment. However, other applications seem no closer now than they did when Robotics in Service was first written, in particular, the household robot.

Many projects have encountered the same problems experienced with the industrial application of robotics. That is, the problem has frequently been more difficult to solve cost effectively than was anticipated. Engelberger's robotic nursing assistant is a typical example where the initial concept had to be simplified to the point that much of the utility of the original idea was lost. Moreover, the high capital cost of a HelpMate nursing assistant meant that to attract customers the machines had to be rented at below cost rather than sold. As a result, the company has a high probability of going the way of the household robot companies of the 1980's. While use of service robots will continue to increase, it seems unlikely they will replace industrial applications as the high growth area for robotics. Although very successful in some areas, robots are still struggling in many industrial applications even though the environment is more structured, the tasks more repetitive and high capital costs less of an issue than for most service applications.

Why have the ambitions not been met?

It would be incorrect, as is sometimes claimed, to suggest that robotics has not been a success. The statistics presented in section 2.3 show it to be an industry that has come into being, grown very quickly, continues to expand at a respectable rate, and is moving steadily into new application areas. However, many researchers see robotics as an unfulfilled promise. In Engelberger's view, "At this writing the industrial robot has become a 'ho hum' product. To some a robot is no more than a mechanical computer peripheral"(Engelberger 1989:13). This sums up the view of many researchers in the robotics community who would like to see a far more visionary approach to robotics and the adoption of technology that they have devoted considerable effort to developing. But perhaps this is not a realistic view.

The larger, more ambitious projects such as the Autonomous Land Vehicle project and the sheep shearing research project have shown just how difficult it is to apply robotic technology to entirely new tasks. In the sheep shearing project the technical problems were solved and hundreds of successful trials and demonstrations took place. This is, however, only a small part of building a commercially viable product. To gain the benefits of the automated shearing process there needs to be automated sheep handling to get the sheep to and from the robot, automatic fleece handling and automatic fleece inspection. The robot must operate quickly to shear large numbers of sheep over a short period. To be economically viable the entire system has to be reliable and maintainable by operators in remote areas with limited training. Because of the high capital cost of the equipment, it must be mobile rather than a permanent fixture at each farm. The solutions require straight engineering but the engineering effort is substantial and estimated to require a far greater investment than the development of the sheep shearing robot itself.

The sheep shearing project was an example of developing the robot but not having the resources to develop the supporting infrastructure. The Autonomous Land Vehicle project, however, is a good example of the other major difficulty facing robotic applications, that being the large gap between almost solving a problem and a working system. The two overland vehicles demonstrated successfully in 1997 were not developed to the point where they could be deployed in a working environment and it is planned that the highway vehicles which were able to traverse 12,500 miles with less than 1% in manual mode in 1997 will not be developed to prototype stage before 2002.

Another problem encountered with the deployment of robotic solutions is the complications of working with existing systems and the length of time it takes to change attitudes. An example of this is automatic fuel refilling for road vehicles discussed in section 2.4.4. The three systems in use by 1996 were only available for specially modified fleets. Schraft et al (1996) then developed a system which can refuel over 80% of vehicles with their filler cap on the right hand side of the vehicle. Having largely solved the problems associated with a large variety of vehicle designs there remains the issue of cost and convincing the public to use the system.

The obstacle most often thwarting the ambitions of roboticists and underlying most of the problems discussed above is complexity. Robots can be constructed to satisfy any given input-output specifications, ie. we could construct robots that would behave in any way we desire under any environmental circumstances. However, the number of combinations of inputs quickly becomes immense. For example in a system with n sensors with each having a binary state running for K time steps, there are 2nK possible states for which an appropriate output is required. To reduce the combinations to a manageable number, a large proportion of these states can be grouped, as they require the same response and many relationships can be developed between others. As with the earliest robots this is still the way that robotic systems are constructed. However in the natural environment, the number of input-output specifications is frequently too large for any engineering solution. The response of engineers has been to control the environment in which the robot operates and limit the tasks it performs in order to limit the number of possible input-output combinations to a number and level of complexity amenable to engineering solutions. They must then provide sensors able to detect the relevant input conditions and finally develop the logic to handle all possible input-output combinations.

One solution proposed, to avoid engineers having to develop control logic, is controlling robots with neural networks. The neural network is trained by defining an appropriate response to each combination of inputs. The neural network will then learn by creating the logic to reproduce the response whenever the input is repeated. The limitation of this technique is that, when time is included as a variable, the combination of circumstances encountered usually becomes too large for the neural network to be adequately trained. A robot controlled this way would be forever encountering new situations negligibly different from those encountered previously but for which it has no appropriate response. Culbertson (1963) recognised neural networks were inadequate for dealing with the real world and subsequently developed a theory of consciousness which he thought could be applied to robotics. Great effort has since been devoted to artificial intelligence research, but in 1998 artificial intelligence still only exists in highly restricted forms unsuitable for the control of robots. What is needed to achieve the ambitions of roboticists are robots that are able to learn, build up an understanding of their environment, self correct and accept high level commands in a similar manner to humans. The technology to do this with machines remains unavailable.

Is Replacing humans the right objective?

In the early literature on robotics, the major objective was to replace human labour with robots. Current robot installations and research pursue other objectives such as precision control, consistent product quality and increased human safety. Nevertheless, frequently the motivation for robotic applications remains the desire to lower costs by replacing human labour with cheaper machines. The motive is based on the premise that human labour is expensive. In fact this is not always true. The cost of human labour varies enormously. The variation is partly due to skill levels, partly to the social standing of particular occupations, and partly to the industry in which a person is employed. Another determinant of labour cost is geographic location, for example, those employed in remote locations are usually compensated for the harsh environment. However, a major determinant of the cost of human labour is political boundaries. People in some countries earn much less for the same work as people in others which can be shown by comparing annual earnings for people engaged in manufacturing in different countries. Table 4 shows the annual earnings in US dollars for workers engaged in manufacturing for a group of countries chosen to show the range. The list is ranked from the country with the lowest incomes to that with the highest incomes. Error is introduced by the requirement to convert the source data to annual earnings and United States dollars to enable a comparison between countries. However, the variation in annual earnings is so substantial that inexactitude does not detract from the evidence that there is a wide variation in annual incomes associated with political boundaries. For example, Table 4 shows the average German manufacturing worker enjoys 50 times the annual earnings of the average Chinese manufacturing worker.

Many of those living in poor areas seek to improve their situation by moving to a location where the circumstances are more favourable, but immigration restrictions frequently limit people's ability to move. Another method by which those in poorer nations seek to take advantage of the discrepancy in labour costs is by selling their labour in the form of manufactured products in locations where labour costs are higher. However, such trade is often limited by natural barriers, for example the distance to markets and artificial barriers, for example tariffs. In addition, manufacturing and trade requires entrepreneurs, capital, political stability and infrastructure in the form of ports, roads, power etc which are often unavailable to those in poorer areas. Apart from manufacturing, there are many other fields of endeavour in wealthier nations including mining agriculture and service industries which people in poorer nations would like to contribute to if they were given the opportunity.

Those in poorer areas or seeking to avoid harsh environments would be better off if they were able to sell their skills in locations where labour costs were higher without having to be physically present. The intelligence required to carry out a task could be separated from the infrastructure required to physically perform a task. That is, people can provide the intelligence from a convenient location for teleoperated reduced instruction set robots, that are located where the work is required. Communicating intelligence requires only minimal local infrastructure if satellite communications are used. This is an alternative to developing machines that can learn, understand, self correct and accept high level commands in the same way as a human.

Country Year Annual Earnings US$ Period for Which Source Data Available Variation from maximum exchange rate over the year
Malawi 1995 $467 Month 71%
China 1996 $679 Month 0%
Egypt 1994 $1,134 Week 1%
Mauritius 1996 $1,918 Day 12%
Thailand 1995 $2,406 Month 4%
Zimbabwe 1996 $2,665 Month 14%
Botswana 1995 $2,799 Month 6%
Mexico 1996 $3,100 Month 9%
Costa Rica 1996 $3,680 Month 13%
Peru 1995 $3,719 Month 4%
Hong Kong 1996 $9,586 Day 0%
Singapore 1996 $19,737 Month 2%
Australia 1995 $24,198 Hour 8%
USA 1996 $25,560 Hour 0%
UK 1996 $25,671 Hour 12%
Austria 1995 $30,860 Month 13%
Japan 1996 $31,320 Month 11%
Germany* 1996 $35,070 Hour 8%
Switzerland 1994 $53,064 Month 15%

Average wages for all manufacturing workers in a selection of countries. Data sourced from (International Labour Office 1997:Table 5B pp 829-910) and adjusted [ ]. *Data for former West Germany.
Table 4

A way forward for robotics

A fully autonomous robot would need no instruction or control but this is not what most people have in mind when they seek to build autonomous devices. They envisage limited autonomy and want to be able to issue high level commands such as instructing a robot to clean the house. This is perceived as necessary for a robot to be useful. I have suggested that, as long as machines cannot be made to think like humans, the principle limitation of robotic solutions is the development of appropriate responses for all the possible combinations of circumstances which the robot will encounter. This formidable hurdle continues to constrain robotic applications as it has done since robots were first developed.

An alternative is to provide solutions for subsets of situations the robot will encounter and leave the remainder to be solved by a human as they occur. This could be termed, a reduced instruction set approach to robotics. It lessens the subset of circumstances for which an engineer must develop solutions to a manageable number. Solutions need not be comprehensive. The instruction set can even be reduced to the point that nothing useful is achieved by invoking any particular instruction then relying on a human to generate a series of these instructions to complete a task.

To compare a reduced instruction set solution with a traditional solution consider the example of instructing a wheeled robot of the type in Figure 19 with odometry on the driven wheels to proceed to a new location.

Mobile robot with independently driven axles.
Figure 19

An algorithm to implement the instruction is:-

  1. Drive the axles simultaneously in opposite directions at the same speed until the odometers have measured sufficient rotation for the robot to be facing the appropriate direction.
  2. Drive both axles forward at the same speed until the odometer has measured sufficient rotations for the robot to travel the requested distance.

This is a simple algorithm, easily implemented, and once completed there is an expectation that the robot will be in the desired location. However there will always be some error due to inaccuracies in the odometry and there are circumstances where this algorithm will fail entirely. These include an obstruction, an uneven surface that produces wheel slip or a broken axle. Thus, the algorithm is simple but not comprehensive. However, the algorithm will be comprehensive if the environment is controlled. The axle can be made strong enough not to break, the floor can be made flat, with a surface that will not allow wheel slip, and all obstructions can be removed. Alternatively, sensors can be added to locate the robot by triangulation and to sense obstructions. Then the algorithm can be improved to plan a path around the obstruction. Traditionally an engineer uses a combination of techniques to build a system that will complete the task with a high degree of reliability. A reduced instruction set approach would consist only of the simple algorithm, accept that it will frequently fail and rely on the human giving the instruction to determine the appropriate response.

The concept is also applicable at higher levels. For instance, assume in the case of the above example that an algorithm has been implemented so that the robot will arrive at a specified location with a high degree of reliability. The requirement might now be to fetch an object. The complexity of the problem has increased enormously. The object must be found, recognised, grasped, transported and placed. A reduced instruction set approach will rely on a human to recognise the object, tell the robot where it is, determine how it should be grasped, where it should be transported and how it should be placed. This is accomplished with a string of simpler instructions to the robot with the human deciding what should be next and monitoring the progress from time to time.

A reduced instruction set approach to robotics simplifies the task for the system builders but the robot constructed needs frequent human attention. A human can get a robot to achieve useful functions by providing the missing "intelligence" and issuing new or modified low level instructions to the robot as circumstances require. Teleoperation provides a method for supplying human intelligence from a location which is remote from the robot. The big advantage is that we are able to avoid the problem of building intelligent machines, which I assert is the principle constraint on the use of robotic solutions. Paul et al have also proposed telerobotics as a method of providing the "missing component of intelligence of the robotics pantheon (Paul et al. 1996:13)" and have coined the term "operabotics" to describe the concept. They have applied the concept to two applications, undersea robotics and control of an experimental multiple agent supervisory control system both of which required purpose built operator interfaces. Telerobotics has been used extensively in hazardous environments but providing purpose built operator stations and communications has made it prohibitively expensive for all but cost insensitive applications such as the Sojourner Mars Rover. However, the World Wide Web provides an opportunity to eliminate the expense associated with operator stations. An appropriately configured reduced instruction set robot can be controlled with human intelligence by anyone with access to a web browser. There are millions of operator stations and the opportunity for people to apply their intelligence at any location regardless of their own. It also changes the direction of telerobotics fundamentally, opening whole new application areas. For example, Sheridan points out that: "There has been surprisingly little interest in human supervisory control for industrial robots and the availability of a nearby human operator ... has been taken for granted (Sheridan 1992:107)". But, as discussed in section 2.6, cheap operator workstations offer the opportunity for those in poor countries to sell their labour where wages are higher. There are also advantages in making expensive industrial machinery available to people who can not afford to own it, opportunities to provide entertainment and opportunities for service applications, such as the control of underground mining equipment. Consider for example the HelpMate robots discussed in section 2.4.10 which provide courier services in hospitals. They are instructed to proceed to preset locations by the push of a button, they then they proceed autonomously announcing themselves upon arrival. It is a service likely to be used by many different people all of which have to understand the controls. As well, the HelpMates have a limited number of preset places to go, the item carried might be intended for someone who is not there and the HelpMates might not be in the right place at the right time. Imagine how much the service would be enhanced by providing the HelpMates with human intelligence so that they could accept voice commands as originally intended. The humans in command could then direct the HelpMates to anywhere in their range, search for people or reinterpret commands as required and anticipate demand. As the HelpMates can perform most courier tasks autonomously, modifying the HelpMates for web teleoperation would allow one person from anywhere in the world to supervise several cheaply. This would enable the HelpMates to provide an intelligent courier service.

With web teleoperation there are a host of new questions raised associated with a large number of frequently inexperienced users rather than a small coterie of highly trained operators, for instance do people find controlling a telerobot entertaining? There are new opportunities for analysing the actions of large numbers of users to learn how they interact with the system rather than designing experiments to be conducted on small but well controlled sample groups. There is also an extensive range of peripheral issues such as how to promote a web-based teleoperable service and how those using the service can be persuaded to contribute to its development. The remainder of this thesis deals with control schemes for web teleoperation, building three web telerobots and investigating the new issues that web telerobotics raises.