Farm tractors have been growing bigger and bigger, though perhaps not everywhere – the photograph was taken in Donegal, Ireland earlier this year. The size of tractors is driven by the economics of needing a driver in the cab. The labour costs are high in many places, so that the productivity per tractor driver has to be high too. Hence, the tractors have to move fast and process a large amount of the field on each pass. This leads to enormous tractors that weigh a lot and exert a large pressure on the soil, which in turn results in between 1 and 3% of the farm land becoming unproductive because crops won’t grow in the severely compressed soil. But what happens if we eliminate the need for the driver by using autonomous vehicles? Then, we can have smaller vehicles working 24/7 that do less damage and are cheaper, which means that a single machine breakdown doesn’t bring work to halt. We can also contemplate tailoring the farming of each field to the local environmental and soil conditions instead a mono-crop one-size fits all approach. These are not my ideas but were espoused by Peter Cooke of the Queensland University of Technology at a recent meeting at the Royal Society on ‘Robotics and Autonomous Systems’.
It is a similar argument for modular nuclear power stations. Most of the world is intent on building enormous reactors capable of generating several GigaWatts of power (that’s typically 3 with nine zeros after it) at a cost of around £8 billion (that’s 8 with nine zeros) so about 50 pence per Watt. Such a massive amount of power requires a massive infrastructure to deliver the power to where it is need and a shutdown for maintenance or a breakdown potentially cuts power to about a million people. The alternative is small modular reactors built, and later dismantled, in a factory that leave an uncontaminated site at a lower capital cost and which provide a more flexible power feed into the national grid. Some commentators (see for example Editor’s comment in Professsional Engineer, November 2015)believe that a factory could be established and rolling modular reactors off its production line on the same timescale as building a GigaWatt station.
Regular readers will recognise a familiar theme found in Small is beautiful and affordable in nuclear powerstations on January 14th, 2015, Enabling or disruptive technology for nuclear engineering on January 28th, 2015 and Small is beautiful on October 10th, 2012; as well as the agricultural theme in Knowledge-economy on January 1st, 2014.
Some months ago I wrote about soft robots that could delicately pick up fragile objects [see my post entitled ‘Robots with a delicate touch’ on June 3rd, 2015]. These robots, developed by George Whiteside’s research group, went some way towards mimicking the function of our hands. However, these robots are numb because they have no sense of touch. Think about how hard it would be to strike a match or pick up an egg without your sense of touch. Katherine Kuchenbecker from the University of Pennsylvania is working on robots with tactile sensors that detect pressure and vibrations. This sensitivity transforms their ability to perform delicate tasks such as picking up an egg, or perhaps more significantly perform surgery. I listened to Professor Kuchenberger speak at a meeting at the Royal Society on ‘Robotics and Autonomous Systems’ where she put us off our lunch with some gory videos on robot-assisted surgery. You can watch them at her website. Her vision is of robots that connect vision and touch, which is of course what we do effortlessly most of the time.
Can a robot pick up an egg or a baby cactus without damaging either? If it is a conventional ‘hard’ robot then the answer is almost certainly ‘no’. But if it is a ‘soft’ robot then the answer is definitely ‘yes’. They can pick ripe tomatoes from the plant, too. And play the piano with a light touch.
These are all examples used by Professor George Whitesides to illustrate the capability of soft robots during a lecture that I attended last week. The occasion was a scientific discussion meeting on Bio-inspiration of New Technologies which was held to celebrate 350 years to publishing the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. While I was in London listening live to Prof Whitesides and the other eight speakers, other people were listening via video links to Bangalore, India and Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Professor Whitesides’ ingenious robots have ‘fingers’ built from the same soft rubber that is used in implants. They are constructed with a solid layer on one face that is curled around the object being picked up by the inflation of compartments on the reverse face. The inflation of the compartments on the reverse face cause the face to lengthen and the ‘finger’ bends to accommodate the change in length. Careful design of the inflated compartments allows the fingers to conform to the shape being picked up and the use of microfluidics ensures it is not damaged.
Professor Whiteside identified star fish as the source of inspiration for the design of his soft robots. I don’t feel that this short piece has done justice to his work. If, nevertheless, you feel inspired to work for him then there’s probably a queue and since he is professor at Harvard it is almost certainly a long one. His research group has also spun out a company, Soft Robotics Inc. so you could buy some soft robots and explore their capabilities…