Robots and our environment


The biggest asset that we have as a species is our planet and we know that it’s under some stress. This very famous graph here shows the variation in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere as a function of time. And we can see that there is an inexorable upward trend and that’s going to have all sorts of consequences for life on this planet. So we need to understand how the planet is responding to all the different stresses that the growing human population is placing on it.

During recent times, we become very good at studying other planets. This is a lovely picture that shows a number of the rover vehicles that NASA has sent to Mars and these rovers have made wonderful discoveries about what's happened on that planet. In particular, they’ve pretty much proven the fact that water once existed on that planet. But what about our own planet? Well, on our own planet we have lots of scientists who spend a lot of their time collecting data to try and get an update on the health of the planet. But collecting this kind of data is very, very labour intensive. And here are some images of scientists collecting specimens under water. 

One of the problems with the expense of this manual collection of data is that we can't collect very much data. It’s not possible to collect specimens or make measurements at every point on the planet and nor can we visit those points very often. So the sampling that we do, the measurements that we make are very sparse. We do not visit very many places and we do not visit them very often. The bottom line is that we are under sampling the planet and that makes it difficult to understand some of the underlying biological and ecological processes that are occurring. 

But what if it wasn't people collecting the data? What if we sent robots out to do that instead? And over the years many roboticists have built robots for exactly this purpose, for environmental data collection. Here we have a robotic flying vehicle which can make meteorological observations inside extreme weather systems like cyclones or hurricanes.

This robot here was develop by Carnegie Mellon University and has legs and the rapelling cable which allows it to descend into the crater of a volcano to make measurements of liquids and gases there. Blimps have been developed to make autonomous environmental surveys of large areas of rainforest such as in the Amazon basin.

This pretty spacey looking underwater vehicle is use to explore sinkholes in Mexico. The Nomad rover was also develop by Carnegie Mellon University and was used to perform Antarctic survey, in particular searching for fallen meteorites. And the robotic boat here was develop by colleagues of mine at CSIRO and performed measurements of water quality over the surface of a very large water storage. 

A really interesting development is the Argo float. And this map shows a snapshot of the Argo floats around the world. These floats are really very simple robots. They move up and down the water column by controlling their buoyancy. And as they move up and down in the water column they measure temperature and salinity and other physical parameters. They drift in the currents of the ocean. So they allow us to explore in three dimensions what's going on in our oceans. If you're interested in more information about the floats have a look at this URL here. 

Here is an example from colleagues at my University who interested in the population of these gentle creatures called dugongs. Dugongs can be found all around the world but there's a large population of them in Moreton Bay which is the port just outside my city of Brisbane.

They used an unmanned aerial vehicle with downward looking cameras to take pictures from the air. And then some image processing techniques to detect and count dugongs within the bay. We don't have to send divers down to find and count the dugongs. We can fly over the bay to get automatic measurements of how many dugongs there are and whereabouts in the bay they are. 

Now, an unmanned aerial vehicle or flying robot that does this kind of survey has got a limited endurance. It can only be in the air for a certain amount of time before it runs out of fuel. But a lot of researchers are now starting to look at solar powered robots. This is a picture of a solar powered robot, again developed at my University, which can stay in the air forever. And people are looking at solar powered boats and solar powered underwater vehicles and solar powered land robots as well. So this is a technology which allows us to put intelligent machines into the environment where they can persistently monitor the state of the planet and send back lots of measurements taken at frequent intervals and covering a large expanse of our planet's surface.               

Our planet is hurting and we need to understand better where the pain is and how the ecosystem is coping. We need data, but traditional methods are slow and expensive, can robots help?

Professor Peter Corke

Professor of Robotic Vision at QUT and Director of the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision (ACRV). Peter is also a Fellow of the IEEE, a senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and on the editorial board of several robotics research journals.

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