What's next in the world of robots and automation? Robots are already diffusing bombs, carrying out operations and building cars. Well, it seems they're now able to nod to us and react to our body language as if understanding every word we say.
Yesterday marked the opening of the Bristol Robotic Laboratory – the largest in Europe, with space for around 70 academics and robotic engineers. This has taken around 20 years for visionary Prof Chris Melhuish to bring to life.
"Our research focuses on applications ranging from human robot interaction, medical robotics, soft robots with artificial muscles, autonomous flying robots and those that turn biomass into energy," he said. "We're on the threshold of an exciting new era."
Chris Buxton, chairman of The British Automation and Robots Association and The Industrial Vision Association, explained how he is a 'robot evangelist': "The impact of globalisation is now a harsh reality and we operate in a global market in competition with countries such as China and India. What we have to do is innovate, as we are clearly not going to beat them on price.
"Our universities are the bedrock of manufacturing innovation and the upcoming industry roundtable this autumn will reveal our research in this area.
"Most of us are aware of robotics in medicine and the pharmaceutical industry. For instance, microsurgery can now be guided by a long-distance electronic link so the surgeon doesn't even need to be in the same country.
"Robots can work in temperatures lower than a human can tolerate and so a company dealing with refrigerated products can save on heat and social comforts. A robot also never gets sick and can undertake tasks in unpleasant conditions (such as those in the nuclear industry or bomb disposal) that a human might not consider worth the risk. Most importantly, a manufacturing company can run a 24-hour lights-out operation seven days a week, and robots get the order right every time with the resulting zero waste.
"There is no doubt the future will be automated and we will be populated with robots in ways we cannot even imagine as yet."
MP David Willetts, who opened the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, said: "This general purpose technology can transform low-tech and mid-tech sectors. In the 1980s, it was used to transform the retail sector. Today, it can be used across countries, networks, medicine, service, manufacturing and business sectors.
"Companies such as Nissan already use robots successfully to make cars, while Caspar is a robot designed to help children with autism communicate."
David Willetts concluded his speech by announcing the release of £16m for UK robotics research, which was warmly welcomed by some 200 engineers, academics and industry enthusiasts.
Claire Phoenix is managing editor of Beverage Innovation magazine.
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