Friday, May 30, 2014

The Robot Revolution (Lithium Ion Batteries)

In the future, few real robots will look like this.   But robots will become a part of everyday life - and already are.

Robots are here, it seems, or just around the corner.    The original Roomba, little more than a toy, has given way to more serious models that may outmode the vacuum cleaner, over time.   Unmanned aerial vehicles promise to do everything from patrolling parks and highways, to detecting crop problems and forest fires.   Autonomous cars that drive themselves, which seemed like a far distant dream in 1990 (when I wrote my first Patent on one) are now a real-world item.

What happened and why did robots become practical so suddenly?

In the distant past, science fiction authors described robots as humanoid, like the ASIMO robot shown above.   While there may be a place for humanoid robots, I suspect they will make up a small minority of robots of the future.   Why?   Simply because humanoid robots are impractical.   If you want a robot to do a certain task, it is far more efficient to design one to do that task.   Science fiction writers would posit that a humanoid robot would vacuum the rugs by working a standard vacuum cleaner.   However, it is far easier and more efficient (and less costly) that to make a robotic vacuum cleaner.

So I think you will see more and more specialty robots like that, rather than general-purpose humanoid robots.

By why are they more practical now?   The long answer is that improvements in energy density, in terms of power storage, have occurred.   The short answer is Lithium-Ion Batteries.

Driven by the laptop and cell phone industries, and now applied to everything from hybrid and electric cars, to airplanes and even helicopters, these batteries have made modern robotics possible.

In the past, presuming you could even design the mechanical joints and actuators to make a robot do whatever it is you wanted it to do, the big problem was energy storage.   Lead-acid batteries would power a robot for only a few minutes.   Long extension cords would be impractical.   Gasoline engines would be loud, smelly, and a fume and fire hazard.   There was no practical way to provide the power to a robot - to store large amounts of energy in a small space.

Lithium-Ion batteries solved this problem, by providing a lot of energy storage in a relatively small space, in a battery than can last a decade or more - and not be subject to the charging issues of NiCad and other battery types.

So today, you can buy an airplane - a real airplane - that runs on battery power.  This would have been though impossible just a few years ago, as batteries could not provide the energy nor the range necessary to drive a car, much less fly a plane.

As with any invention, however, there are drawbacks.   Lithium-Ion batteries store a lot of energy.  And if that energy is discharged suddenly, it can cause problems.   Battery fires have been noted in laptops, cellphones, and even on Boeing's Dreamliner.   Usually, defects in the battery construction cause such fires.

By the way, almost any battery can cause problems, due to the energy stored.  9V batteries have been known to start fires, if left in a pocket or handbag with a loose paper clip.   Once the terminals are shorted out, they can turn that paperclip red hot and cause a fire to occur.

Will we see home robots in our lifetime?   Yes, and we already are - with small autonomous robots like the Roomba.  And most, I suspect, will be like that - specialized machines for performing specific tasks.   I doubt many people will have humanoid robots to answer the door and mix Martinis, as in the science fiction books.

Well, maybe there will be a demand for humanoid robots, that is to say, sexbots.   Yes, robotics, like any technology, will bring with it a host of messy social issues.