Robots 3D, the latest feature at the Science Museum’s IMAX cinema, is as much about how far the science of robotics still has to go as it is about its recent progress.
When Mike Slee, the director of the film, prefaced the press screening by highlighting “how amazing human beings are” rather than their mechanical creations, he hit at the very heart of the movie’s premise.
Robots 3D is happy to showcase the benefits that robots may provide for society in the future alongside footage of them failing the most simple of tasks, in human terms at least. For every claim that automatons will one day aid disaster relief and support the elderly there is a clip of a robot falling over or dropping something. This a film that is refreshingly realistic, without denouncing the great strides that have already occurred.
The film highlights how the vast majority of robots must focus on a single specific task if they are to prove useful. HERB, a robot butler, is able to clear the table, with varying degrees of success, while Rollin’ Justin, developed by the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics in Germany has a 90 per cent success rate for catching balls. One of the most famous robots on show, Honda’s Asimo, dubbed “the world's most advanced humanoid robot,” is able to recognise voices and gestures, walk, run and jump, but it has taken more than 15 years of development to get to this stage.
Other examples of humanoid robots shown throughout the film demonstrate however, that robots are already providing practical assistance in certain situations. Robonaut is being used to help astronauts on-board the International Space Station complete simple, repetitive or dangerous assignments. Because of the high level of dexterity displayed by Robonaut, it can handle the same tools as the astronauts and carry out tasks like changing the ISS air filter.
Similarly, Atlas is a six-foot tall, 330-pound rescue robot designed by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for use in emergency situations. So far, Atlas has completed a number of tasks and operated power tools and opened doors in environments where humans would not survive. Upon seeing Robots 3D, Alistair Otto, commercial experiences manager at the Science Museum, agreed that it displayed plenty of examples of how “humanoids are already changing our world,” alongside more inspirational claims about the future of robotics.
In fact, carrying out rescue operations in environments that are too dangerous for humans is one of most likely uses for robots in the future. The film contained footage of this year’s DARPA Robotics Challenge, an event developed in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake to demonstrate how robotics can be used in disaster relief efforts. In order to qualify for the event, robots had to complete five challenges: engage an emergency shut-off switch, get up from a prone position, locomote ten metres without falling, pass over a barrier, and rotate a circular valve 360 degrees. The entrants competed with varying degrees of success, but the challenge demonstrated the potential benefits that robots may provide in years to come.
However, like most of Robots 3D, the DARPA challenge also showed how far behind robots are when it comes to the efficiency, variety and speed with which humans can complete tasks. Robots certainly have their uses today, but most of all they highlight how amazing human beings are.