Telerobotics then Robotics

It is now pretty certain that ubiquitous high-definition stereoscopic (3-D) video telecommunications will become practical for everyday use well before self-learning, affordable humanoids emerge in society (if, in fact, such machines ever become a reality). Since widespread use of telerobotics will create a hardware basis for gradual implementation of autonomous functionality one of Page 5's goals is to demonstrate that environment structuring can be done in a way that benefits both humans and machines. Furthermore, we intend to show that it can be done in an aesthetically pleasing way.

The use of fixtures to maintain parts orientation during manufacturing and reliance on devices to regain individual part orientation from bulk storage comprise the backbone of factory automation. Interestingly, the need to prepare human occupied spaces in order to accommodate useful robotic interaction is often proclaimed, with little or no supporting evidence, to be totally unacceptable to consumers. This is understandable when one considers that most robotic development efforts do not provide for intuitive and ergonomic remote intervention by operators when there is a glitch in autonomous routines (presumably, this is, due to the lack of pragmatic video telecommunication technology).

Attaining acceptable reliability for machines with hands and arms working in human-occupied spaces by using pure automation and environment structuring would certainly be both expensive and intrusive. With a telemanipulation mode of intervention, however, 100% reliability for autonomous functionality is no longer a strict requirement and environment structuring becomes much more practical.

Molded plastic organizers for utensils found in most people’s kitchen drawers and slide-out cabinet shelves are good examples of environment structuring devices that enhance our daily activities of living. There are literally thousands of other organizational products available for bringing order to chaos in every room of the home. In fact, as seen on television shows like Mission OrganizationTM, there are actually professionals out there making a living by helping people organize their spaces. Frequently, the drawers and cabinets in health care settings are no better organized than their counterparts in the typical home.

Fully capturing the potential benefits of telerobotics in health care facilities will require innovative ways to easily design and manufacture custom organizers. Inexpensive CADCAM (computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacture) engravers and routers can be used to fabricate structural components that can be assembled using a wide variety of do-it-yourself hardware or even snapped together if the parts are cleverly designed. In the near future, there will be many opportunities for efficiency experts to provide turn-key services to businesses that decide to adopt mobile, object-handling telerobotic systems.

After an environment has been suitably structured there will be an adjustment period for facility staff to become comfortable coexisting with telerobots. While environment structuring will be welcome for some (the neatniks) it may be initially frustrating for others (most of us). However, if early buy-in by the majority of colleagues impacted by the technology was attained by the project manager, then constructive feedback on system pros and cons and suggestions for changes will likely be forthcoming. This should help ease the transition to the updated operation.

To monitor employee acceptance and cooperation with a telerobotics initiative managers will run reports on the percentage of time teleoperators spend intervening in tasks that should be running autonomously but have been upset by people not putting things where they belong. In the end, high utilization of telerobotic systems will prevail as they prove themselves to be the new paradigm in operational efficiency. Over time, telerobots will be seen as necessary survival tools for coping with tightening budgets and/or labor shortages in a diversity of markets.