IN AUSTRALIA ALONE, we already have firefighting robots that can be remotely driven into a hot zone; agricultural robots (such as the robot developed by Sydney's Australian Centre for Field Robotics that can be seen in the video autonomously tackling weeds) that can spray, weed, prune, harvest and spot disease; domestic robots that scoot around our lounge-room floor sucking up dust and roam our gardens mowing the lawn; robot tour guides in our museums; and robot drones. And this is just scratching the surface.
What exactly is a robot?
Suprisingly, the definition of a robot is not settled even among the experts who conceptualise, design and build them. “I think if you take the classic definition of a robot, it’s a mechanised human,” says Professor Salah Sukkarieh, director of research and innovation at University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics, one of the largest field robotics centres in the world. But a robot is something more than a simple automaton. “It’s not just automating machinery, because we’ll call that automation; robotics then is adding intelligence into the system to make it think and make its own decisions,” Salah says. This autonomy seems to be the key feature that distinguishes ordinary automation from robotics, but it’s a sliding scale. There’s no set point at which something changes from dumb machine following GPS waypoints to a robot interacting with humans, making decisions and learning, Salah says.
Read more about how robots are aiding Australia's workplaces and what it means for Australia's future in AG#134, out now.