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Why a dumb bot might be more helpful than a smart bot (for now)

Matt Younger, a project engineer at Polaris, shows how the delivery bots work.

A low-profile robot glides silently over a magnetic strip on a cement floor, operating unnoticed in an assembly plant. When someone walks in front of it, the robot stops and waits. If you press a button on one end of the plant, you can summon the bot, then connect a few metal carts to make a robot-powered train and instruct the bot to deliver the parts. This process happens over 180 times per day, seven days as week. Before the bot took over, a human operator pulled the metal carts by hand, over and over again. This is not a wonder of engineering, but it is amazingly practical and helpful.

I noticed the bots right away, but then again, I’m a major Star Wars fan. My dad took me to see the original movie when it first debuted in 1977. I wondered at the machine learning in the movie (a bot’s ability to adapt and adjust to the situation on its own) and hoped it would someday become a reality. Here at the plant, I marveled at the autonomy — the bots charge themselves automatically and need no supervision. It is Star Wars in living form.

In the Polaris plant, workers can summon the delivery bot.

Above: In the Polaris plant, workers can summon the delivery bot.

Image Credit: John Brandon

Here’s the big surprise. These “robots” do use machine learning — they can detect obstructions and determine when it is safe to continue. Once, when the bot stopped for a large pile of metal tools in a cart, it noticed when someone moved the cart, but then stopped again rather suddenly when it noticed the path was not quite clear.

“That seems like an error,” said Kurt Bickler, the manufacturing systems manager at Polaris, one of the largest companies in Minnesota, known for their snowmobiles and off-road machines. The bot should have waited initially until the path cleared; apparently, the stop-start motion is not intentional. It seemed like a minor bug to me.

Last year, when Polaris tested a stand-up robot in their plant, one that could walk on two legs and carry a load from one place to another, it kept pausing for objects and created a distraction for other employees. The new delivery bots work much better. “We don’t even call them ‘robots’ anymore,” said Bickler, explaining how they move silently through the plant.

I was impressed by how it all worked. There are four Jervis Webb Model 100TT delivery bots in their high-tech plant, located in Roseau, Minnesota. They have saved 27 hours of human labor per shift so far during phase one, and plan to deploy another six bots in phase two. Bots never complain about getting the flu or the bad weather. They don’t seem to realize, unlike the humanoids on a show like Westworld, that they lack consciousness. They are a long way from C-3PO. None of the delivery bots can speak Bocce. In fact, they don’t even know English. While tech luminaries like Elon Musk worry about artificial intelligence subduing the human race someday and creating a robopoclypse, these “dumb bots” are quietly changing how the world works.

Think about that person who used to pull the metal carts around. It’s repetitious, not to mention back-breaking. Bots can do the mundane work, augmenting the more intricate process in the factory. Eventually, bots will take on more duties, freeing up the humans even more.

I mentioned some of these existential ideas during my plant tour. “Do you think this factory will be run entirely by robots someday?” It’s a pointless question. They will. There’s no question about that, but it might take a few decades. Maybe robots can replace humans in an assembly plant, although Bickler doesn’t think that will happen in the near term.

I mentioned how Polaris is a company that makes products to help humans perform menial tasks, like hauling rocks or carrying a load of supplies. Even the “entertainment” products (like the Polaris RZR, which goes 0-60 in about seven seconds) are meant to serve our needs (mostly for fun). Someday, the most menial tasks will be augmented by robots, and that is a wonderful thing. Those metal carts I mentioned? A human operator still loads them with ATV parts. When the parts arrive on the assembly line, a human still fits them to the chassis. It’s a good example of how AI at the Polaris is meant to streamline. The age of robotics involves augmentation, not replacement.

I kept wondering about what could be augmented next. It turns out Polaris also uses bots for injection molding: The parts are too hot for a person to touch after they are formed, humans would need to reach inside of a high-temperature chamber to grab the parts, and it’s an ergonomics nightmare. The company also uses bots for welding. An operator loads a suspension onto one side of the bot, presses a button, and a bot performs the welding with incredible precision — with sparks flying everywhere.

One of the challenges has to do with quality. Workers at Polaris use a tablet at the end of the assembly line to take photos of specific parts that must pass an inspection. The photo evidence can be used to determine if there was an assembly problem with that unit. Why can’t a bot do this today? My guess is that image recognition technology is not advanced enough — Google might know how to identify a sailboat or President Obama in a photo, but not whether a screw is tightened all the way.

Above: On the assembly line, a worker snaps a photo as verification.

Image Credit: John Brandon
Matt Younger, a Project Engineer at Polaris, shows how the delivery bots work.

Above: Matt Younger, a project engineer at Polaris, shows how the delivery bots work.

Image Credit: John Brandon

Another challenge has to do with our perception about bots. We don’t always understand them or like them, especially the ones that look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. The delivery bots at Polaris aren’t replacing a human. Yet there’s a perception that bots are taking over the labor force.

I know one possibility for Polaris using bots. At the end of the assembly line, a human driver gets to rev up the engine of every newly minted off-road machine and snowmobile and make sure it works correctly. It seems like fun, until you have to do that 200 times in a day. Could a bot squeeze the throttle and perform the test? That seems likely. There’s no real inspection involved, other than a computer monitoring fuel intakes and gear ratios. Anything that seems robotic can be robotized.

I believe robots will serve alongside us, performing mundane tasks — especially in the home. Humans will move into an “overlord” role (excuse the term) making sure the bots function properly. It might even mean the employees at Polaris can spend more time hunting for deer.

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About Ms. A. C. Kennedy

Ms. A. C. Kennedy
My name is Ms A C Kennedy and I am a Health practitioner and Consultant by day and a serial blogger by night. I luv family, life and learning new things. I especially luv learning how to improve my business. I also luv helping and sharing my information with others. Don't forget to ask me anything!

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Lithium-ion batteries have massively improved in the last half-decade, but there are still issues. The biggest, especially for EVs, is that charging takes too long to make them as useful as regular cars for highway driving. Researchers from the University of Warwick (WMG) have discovered that we may not need to be so patient, though. They developed a new type of sensor that measures internal battery temperatures and discovered that we can probably recharge them up to five times quicker without overheating problems.

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Those limits are based on hard-to-measure internal temperatures, however, which is where the WMG probe comes in. It's a fiber optic sensor, protected by a chemical layer that can be directly inserted into a lithium-ion cell to give highly precise thermal measurements without affecting its performance.

The team tested the sensor on standard 18650 li-ion cells, used in Tesla's Model S and X, among other EVs. They discovered that they can be charged five times faster than previously thought without damage. Such speeds would reduce battery life, but if used judiciously, the impact would be minimized, said lead researcher Dr. Tazdin Amietszajew.

Faster charging as always comes at the expense of overall battery life but many consumers would welcome the ability to charge a vehicle battery quickly when short journey times are required and then to switch to standard charge periods at other times.

There's still some work to do. While the research showed the li-ion cells can support higher temperatures, EVs and charging systems would have to have "precisely tuned profiles/limits" to prevent problems. It's also not clear how battery makers would install the sensors in the cells.

Nevertheless, it shows a lot of promise for much faster charging speeds in the near future. Even if battery capacities stayed the same, charging in 5 minutes instead of 25 could flip a lot of drivers over to the green side.

Via: Clean Technica

Source: University of Warwick