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 By the Gazette Editorial Board

“ALL meals are cooked to order in three minutes or less,” so reads an answer on the FAQ page of a Boston restaurant (https://v.gd/emiwuz). By all standards, this is no a familiar notice to restaurant-goers. Nor is there any mistake in citing the time it takes the eatery to cook a customer’s ordered meal, however, highly customised it may be.  The magic of it is neither a magician’s trick nor the work of a supernatural force but rather the performance of a robotic kitchen developed by four MIT graduates who merged their innovative skills to find a solution to one of the problems that they once faced as student-athletes on the lookout for fast, healthy and tasty meals with only tight budgets. So, they came up with the idea of employing a specially-designed robot to handle the fast cooking process with the use of seven woks to each of which a heating induction element is attached.

On the face of it, the story of the robotic kitchen in Boston may look like entertaining news or a holidaying good read. In a deeper look, the story dramatises the impressive and expanding entry of artificial intelligence into multiple aspects of social life. It may be that this entry is still of a creeping nature in some fields of life, but its impact all around is indeed concretely felt.

A short while earlier, reports surfaced in the media indicating that robotic machines have been devised to harvest soft fruit, pick up anything from strawberries to apples and allow farm cows to queue up for robotic milking, in addition to pruning, seeding and weeding. Aided by 3D vision, the robotic picker ‘simulates’ and competes with the physical behaviour of the human picker, gripping only the ripe berry and snapping it off the stalk. Some of the prototypes being tested are reportedly in such an advanced stage that would make it possible to see agro-robots operating in fields in some countries of the world as early as next year. Mounted on self-driving trolleys, robotic arms are reshaping the modalities and capacities of agricultural production, admittedly one of the very essential sectors for human survival. 

Robotic kitchens and robot farming have something peculiar about them. The advent of robotics in general has, from one point of view, been cautiously received across the world, given that its technological advantages might in all probability not outweigh its social disadvantages as specifically represented by the ensuing layoffs and the abolishing of a sizable number of jobs. Of all the fields where the entry of robotics is either concretely felt or still creeping, robotic kitchens and agro-robots stand alone. For these are two innovations with a distinguishing capacity to solve any existing problem of shortage in human resources. Quite frequently in fact do we come across media and economic reports depicting how difficult it is for fruit and crop growers to find the sufficient number of migrants and other seasonal workers who can deliver the job.

With the help of the advances in machine learning, visual sensor technology and autonomous propulsion, robotic arms and equipment to succeed the prototypes being tested are promising neater harvesting of soft fruit and crops, consumer-friendly yield, faster production and probably much less cost – four wonderful reflections of the influence of robotics on the quality of life.

“ALL meals are cooked to order in three minutes or less,” so reads an answer on the FAQ page of a Boston restaurant (https://v.gd/emiwuz). By all standards, this is no a familiar notice to restaurant-goers. Nor is there any mistake in citing the time it takes the eatery to cook a customer’s ordered meal, however, highly customised it may be.  The magic of it is neither a magician’s trick nor the work of a supernatural force but rather the performance of a robotic kitchen developed by four MIT graduates who merged their innovative skills to find a solution to one of the problems that they once faced as student-athletes on the lookout for fast, healthy and tasty meals with only tight budgets. So, they came up with the idea of employing a specially-designed robot to handle the fast cooking process with the use of seven woks to each of which a heating induction element is attached.

On the face of it, the story of the robotic kitchen in Boston may look like entertaining news or a holidaying good read. In a deeper look, the story dramatises the impressive and expanding entry of artificial intelligence into multiple aspects of social life. It may be that this entry is still of a creeping nature in some fields of life, but its impact all around is indeed concretely felt.

A short while earlier, reports surfaced in the media indicating that robotic machines have been devised to harvest soft fruit, pick up anything from strawberries to apples and allow farm cows to queue up for robotic milking, in addition to pruning, seeding and weeding. Aided by 3D vision, the robotic picker ‘simulates’ and competes with the physical behaviour of the human picker, gripping only the ripe berry and snapping it off the stalk. Some of the prototypes being tested are reportedly in such an advanced stage that would make it possible to see agro-robots operating in fields in some countries of the world as early as next year. Mounted on self-driving trolleys, robotic arms are reshaping the modalities and capacities of agricultural production, admittedly one of the very essential sectors for human survival. 

Robotic kitchens and robot farming have something peculiar about them. The advent of robotics in general has, from one point of view, been cautiously received across the world, given that its technological advantages might in all probability not outweigh its social disadvantages as specifically represented by the ensuing layoffs and the abolishing of a sizable number of jobs. Of all the fields where the entry of robotics is either concretely felt or still creeping, robotic kitchens and agro-robots stand alone. For these are two innovations with a distinguishing capacity to solve any existing problem of shortage in human resources. Quite frequently in fact do we come across media and economic reports depicting how difficult it is for fruit and crop growers to find the sufficient number of migrants and other seasonal workers who can deliver the job.

With the help of the advances in machine learning, visual sensor technology and autonomous propulsion, robotic arms and equipment to succeed the prototypes being tested are promising neater harvesting of soft fruit and crops, consumer-friendly yield, faster production and probably much less cost – four wonderful reflections of the influence of robotics on the quality of life.

HOUSTON, May 6, 2018 (News Wires) - At BP’s massive Thunder Horse oil platform in the US Gulf of Mexico, a dog-sized robot called Maggie uses magnetic tracks to creep along pipes connecting the giant oil facility to the sea floor.

Before MaggHD, dubbed “Maggie” by BP, the dangerous inspection job was reserved for highly paid specialist technicians who did their jobs while rappelling along the platform.

The energy industry has turned to robots and drones to cut costs and improve safety in some of the world’s tougher working environments.

Drones inspect gear high up on floating rigs. Robots crawl underwater to test subsea equipment for microscopic metal cracks. Remotely operated minisubmarines can replace divers.

Big oil producers such as BP and Statoil are racing to create the oil fields of the future, where smart devices replace workers. They have the potential to cut costs, save lives and reduce the scope for human error.

“This is going to change the way oil and gas does business,” Carri Lockhart, senior vice president of offshore at Statoil USA, said in an interview earlier this year, referring to the push toward autonomous gear and facilities.

Maggie belongs to a group of devices known as magnetic crawlers, which can move across rigs, platforms, and pipelines above and below water using ultrasonic test devices and high-definition cameras.

They can cost $60,000 apiece.

BP, the largest operator in the Gulf of Mexico, piloted Maggie on its Thunder Horse platform last year and expects to roll out similar crawlers across all its Gulf of Mexico platforms in coming years.

BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 people and was the largest accidental release of oil into U.S. marine waters, underscored the dangers of offshore work.

BP wants the robots “to remove individuals from being in unsafe environments. The efficiencies we gain by collecting data this way are significant. The safety factor is obvious,” said Dave Truch, a technology director in BP’s Digital Innovation Organization.

Drones and crawlers can do inspections in about half the time of rope access technicians, while placing fewer workers in harm’s way, executives at BP said this week.

Other gadgets can reduce the need for shutdowns, which are sometimes necessary for safe inspection of equipment by humans.

Drones can conduct inspections of flaring equipment, which burn off dangerous gases at oil and gas production facilities, without requiring a shutdown.

Those shutdowns could last anywhere from five to 20 days, said Iain Gault, a business development manager at Stork, an energy maintenance unit of Fluor Corp.

“We still can’t do the physical work with a drone or crawler, but the efficiency is gained by only putting people in the field when needed,” said Gault, who started his career in oil and gas as a rope access technician, rappelling along the sides of oil structures in the North Sea, nearly 30 years ago.

The technology can be a “hard sell” because of the high upfront cost, he added, estimating crawler rentals run between $600 to $1,000 per day, excluding the cost of an operating technician.

Hiring technicians for drones is even more costly because they require pilot’s licenses, he added.

Companies that provide the inspection specialists for offshore equipment say they are not worried about losing out to robots and gadgets. “It is not a threat to jobs, but they change. We have to adapt,” said Ryan King, a technical sales representative for Oceaneering International, an offshore services and equipment provider.

“We’re at a point now where big data is helping optimize inspection programs, so we don’t have to send guys into the field,” King said.

Drones and crawlers may be a steppingstone. Norwegian oil producer Statoil is eying an unmanned, remotely operated production concept. Noble Drilling and General Electric Co. this year launched a partnership to produce a fully digitized drilling vessel, work the companies said paves the way for an autonomous drilling fleet.

“We have the technology. It’s just a matter of getting these projects executed. We’re not there yet on unmanned platforms for deep water, but it’s coming,” Statoil Vice President Lockhart said.

NEW YORK, May 5, 2018 (News Wires) - American artist Barnaby Furnas has turned to a custom-made robot to help him with paintings that can sell for more than $100,000 at New York galleries.

Furnas and several artists are using digital printing robots that use techniques in paintings that were previously impossible or too labour intensive. The machines are guided by inputs from artists and optical sensors to paint in fine detail in lines thinner than a human eyelash.

“I literally think of that robot as a friend,” Furnas said in an interview. “More than a pet, less than an art assistant - somewhere in there.”

He has used a robot called “sozo,” which means imagination in Japanese, for tasks such as painting thousands of hairs on a bison in one of his artworks.

It leaves marks on a canvas according to his instructions that he communicates through an optical tracking system attached to a paintbrush-like rod.

It records a painter's movements, allowing artists to edit brushstrokes before putting an image on a canvas. Those digital images can be combined with brushwork from an artist to bring new dimensions to a painting.

Sozo was created by technology startup Artmatr, whose CEO Ben Tritt is a painter. He sees the company as an open-source community that will help artists merge digital technology with traditional painting methods.

Besides Sozo, Artmatr also has a variety of machines that use ink jet heads found in printers.

“It lowers the risk threshold for individual mark making,” Furnas said.

A prototype 3D printer has for the first time combined several printing methods to enable researchers to produce devices out of multiple materials in a single print run. So far the machine has created basic electronic devices, but the technology brings materials scientists a step closer to their goal of printing complex equipment such as robots or smartphones.

The printer is being presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans, Louisiana, on 21 March.

“This is a remarkable technological advance and a great leap for the field of 3D printing,” says Xuanhe Zhao, a materials scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who was not involved in the work.

The most common 3D printers heat a plastic filament and lay it down in repeated lines, building a layered structure from the bottom up. This is the technique used in inexpensive consumer models. Several other 3D-printing methods have also emerged in recent years, including spraying fine streams of aerosols, printing with liquid resin that is then cured to form a flexible polymer, laying down thin layers of ink that are dried and hardened when exposed to light, and even printing ink that contains conductive nanoparticles, to produce wires and circuits.

“Each printing technology has its own limitations,” says Jerry Qi, a materials scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, who led the design of the multimaterial printer. “We put four 3D-printing technologies under one platform.”

Combined forces

Although current 3D printers can already produce electronic parts and devices made of multiple materials, if a structure requires more than one printing method, a different machine is required for each. But moving an object from one printer to another is usually impractical for the micrometre-level precision that is required in 3D printing, and is inefficient if multiple materials are used in a single layer, says Qi.

His team’s multimaterial printer has printheads — the nozzles that produce the material — for each of the four techniques on a single printing platform. Each has its own software, lights for curing the materials, and a moving platform and robot arms that can pick up and place components. This allows the printheads to work together to build single layers with multiple materials. “It is a very smart solution to this challenge,” says Zhou.

Qi and his colleagues have used the printer to embed a light-emitting diode inside a plastic case, printing the inner circuitry at the same time as the outer enclosure. They have also printed a layer of conductive ink inside a rubbery material that can stretch and flex while delivering a current, demonstrating its possibilities for flexible electronics.

Objects printed on a 3D printer

A wheel (left) and a flexible conductive ribbon created with a new 3D printer.Credit: Craig Hamel and Conner Dunn.

The printer has excited researchers in the field. “We just had a conversation where we were dreaming of that kind of machine,” says Geoff Spinks, a materials engineer at the University of Wollongong in Australia. Such stretchable electronics could be used in compact soft robots, because they offer flexibility that is impossible using the current process of embedding wires into a device, he says.

The machine was mostly funded by the US Air Force and cost roughly US$350,000 to build, says Qi. He thinks the printer’s first customers will be aerospace companies that will use it to design circuitry for avionics, where the ability to print antennas directly could enable rapid prototyping of avionic devices. Qi estimates the printer would sell for about $1 million.

Spinks says this is only the beginning for multimaterial printers. He expects devices with expanded capabilities will soon become available: “I’d imagine in the near future we might have 16 different types of printheads, or even more.”