[VIEWPOINT]The problem of ‘feeding’ robots

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[VIEWPOINT]The problem of ‘feeding’ robots

Robots that are used on a production line of an automobile factory simply need to be plugged in because they are installed at fixed locations. So, there is no energy supply problem with such robots. But how are we supposed to supply energy to service robots that move around along with people? We are familiar with terms like “electrical” or “battery charging,” but if we go a little bit deeper into the problem we realize that it is not a problem of simply charging up a robot. Just as people live on food, the problem of supplying energy to robots expands to the problem of feeding them meals.
The world’s cellular phone market is huge. No matter how convenient the function is, the market would not be this big if we had to change and recharge the batteries many times a day. This is a good example that illustrates the importance of a product’s power source. The capacity of batteries used for laptops is still on the weak side, and so people in the research field are accelerating their effort to develop new fuel cells. Fuel cells are a type of power source that changes chemical energy to electrical energy if some type of fuel, like alcohol, is added.
One characteristic of robots is that they have to be mobile, and this makes the energy problem serious for all robots, including those used in the service sector. Japanese electronics maker Sony Corporation’s robotic dog “AIBO” starts to act weird after around 30 minutes of movement. All humanoid robots produced so far are at substantially similar stages. People only admire the graceful movements of robots shown on TV. Cleaning robots are no exception. On average they have to be recharged after one hour of use, and the time needed for a full recharge is twice as long as the time it functions. When a strong vacuum-cleaning function is used, the robot has to be recharged even more rapidly because it uses up a lot of energy. This is the limit of electric batteries.
Right now, electrical energy is the main power source for all industries and their products. But service robots especially need new methods to deal with the problems because they are faced with such limits now. The average person eats three meals a day for around a total of an hour and a half each day and manages to live 24 hours a day. Compared to man, the energy efficiency of a robot is much lower. Much research has been done until now on the intelligence of robots, and so robots have high “intellectual autonomy” but very weak “energy autonomy.”
Nevertheless there are groups that have studied the problem of robots’ meals in the last four to five years. It seemed like a funny subject at the time but has now become a desperate problem. In order to overcome the limit of electric batteries, for instance, when they are used for a long time outdoors or when the robots ultimately need to live on their own like people, the problem of “meals” needs to be dealt with.
Slugs can be seen crawling around when it rains in Europe. There have been witty people who suggested that robots that find, eat and digest these slugs should be made, and in 2000 in the United States a robot called “Gastronome,” that eats and digests food like people, was invented too. It was a pitiful but important robot in history, that had hardly any intelligence but had the ability to eat and digest food. The theory was that if the robot ate sugar, the colon bacillus in its stomach would dissolve the sugar and use it to recharge its batteries. The proposal was that meat would be more effective because it is higher in calories than sugar. In 2004 in England, an “Eco-bot” was unveiled that ate flies for food and used dirt as enzymes for fuel cells, and a fuel cell robot was developed a few months ago in Japan too.
An article came out in Korea last week about the development of a high performance fuel cell that allowed a laptop computer to run for 10 hours on 200 cubic centimeters of methanol. This would be the same as a service robot drinking one cup of fuel twice a day as if it were a glass of milk, and working for the whole day. On top of that, just a few minutes would be all that is needed for its mealtime.
I think that perhaps this method of using fuel cells will be the new form of energy that will be used for service robots first. And in the far future a method of using a small nuclear fusion battery, the size of a cigarette pack, for a long time without recharging it, just like in the movie “The Terminator,” could become reality too.
Developing a new form of energy that can overcome the limits of electric batteries is important for intelligence-type robots, and is the key to developing the intelligent robot market.

* The writer is a professor of mechanical systems engineering at Chonnam University, and the vice president of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Park Jong-oh
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