Robots are increasingly being relied on to perform various daily tasks. But will they be able to think and emote like humans? K. Jeshi gives us insights into the fascinating science of robotics

“Chitty — the Robot; Speed — 1 Terahertz; Memory —1 Gigabyte” — the super robot in “Enthiran” has created a buzz. It talks, moves, sings, shakes a leg, thrashes the villain, and romances the beautiful Aishwarya Rai. And shares words of wisdom too.

This exciting andro-humanoid robot (played by Rajnikanth) has generated curiosity about robots and robotics.

Some websites such as www.behindwoods.com have a dedicated online forum and Q&A sections on the topic. Engineering students now showcase more and more working models of robots at science exhibitions.

“People want to know if it is really possible for a robot to rotate its head at 360 degrees as in the film,” laughs T. Vijayanand, first employee of S16 Creative Labz.

Many possibilities

“Absolutely possible,” says entrepreneur R. Muthukumar, who has to his credit a patented ‘Smarty' robot. “In any robot, rotation is possible with the help of a stepper motor, servo motor or a DC (direct current) motor,” he adds. However, a stepper motor helps to achieve an accurate angle of continuous rotation, as in the film Enthiran. Muthukumar's Smarty is an artificial intelligence robot, which finds use in industrial applications (picking an object from one point and placing it in another place). “It is sensitive enough to hold even an egg without breaking it,” Muthukumar adds.

In home applications, this robot comes handy in removing dust. A vacuum cleaner is attached to its bottom and the robot senses even tiniest of the dust, picks it and puts it inside the in-built dustbin. All we need to do is just empty the dustbin when it is full. “The intelligence takes place with an artificial brain. For instance, when there is fire in an apartment, it doesn't wait for a command instead starts acting on extinguishing the fire.”

Robots are super intelligent computers, Vijayanand says. “And the day is not far off when robotics becomes a reality.” Robots are super intelligent computers, he says. “Robotics is fast becoming essential to our daily life.”

However, what needs to be explored is rational thinking. For instance, how would a robot, programmed to carry an umbrella when it rains, react when it doesn't rain?

He says, robots designed for a desired singular function have arrived.

In the industries sector, especially textiles, robotic operation carries out specific tasks such as dyeing fabrics. In the automobile industry, it finds use in assembling parts or in fixing a car door. Robotics helps in material handling (picking and dropping materials, such as filling bottles with jam or pickles), fruit harvesting, and in the packing industry, says Nanda Kumar, CEO of Treffer technologies. Treffer deals with engineering design services for clients in the U.S. and Europe.

“A robot is an electro-mechanic machine which reacts to a programme that's in-built. It can be in any form,” he explains.

On the domestic front, we already have mini robotic applications in the form of vacuum cleaners, auto lawn mowers, washing machines and mixer grinders. “With globalisation, companies are moving towards systematic, error-free operations, and employing robots ensure this.”

Useful in space research

Young entrepreneur Hindhuja Rajamaran says robots are the future in space research. A Class IX student in Chennai, she has set up Seppan Entertainment that designs characters for 2D and 3D games on the Internet. “Astronauts are at risk of suffering brittle bones, being hit by asteroids and so on. Robots don't face such problems. They can exist without air and water, and be programmed to send research data to scientists in the lab. This way, even in the case of a spaceship collapse, there is no loss of lives or data.”

Vijayanand says studies are being done on nanotechnology in order to reduce the size of an operation and make nano robots (something like a bonsai concept), and on the thinking power of robots. For example, if you want your hair to be combed every one hour, is a robot intelligent enough to identify and customise your need?

“Awareness and education on robots are important. Other factors are cost effectiveness and marketing of robots,” Vijayanand adds. Sindhuja, a Class XII student, who recently visited Japan as part of a student exchange programme, is fascinated by the robots. “At the Toyota Museum in Nagoya, we saw five to six robots playing musical instruments, from keyboard and drums to the violin and guitar.” At restaurants, robots took orders and served food. They are employed in the car manufacturing unit at Toyota headquarters too (in one second, they perform 100 actions, she says).

And, there is Asimo, displayed at the Future Science Museum in Japan. Asimo (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility), is a humanoid robot created by Honda Research & Development. It stands at 4 feet 3 inches and weighs 54 kg. It resembles a small astronaut, wears a backpack and can walk or run on two feet at speeds up to 6 km/h.

How does a robot react?

* Technologies such as ‘fuzzy logic' and ‘artificial intelligence' are used to work out an algorithm programme.

* This allows one to train a system based on your character (the way Rajnikanth trains Chitty to walk in “Enthiran”). “Once you have the hardware implementation and the training, the robot begins to react to the programme.”

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