Series 15 – Episode 2 – Robotics for extreme environments

28th June 2024
Paige West

Paige West speaks with Yang Gao, Professor of Robotics, Head of Centre for Robotics Research, King's College London about robots in extreme environments.

“My research expertise focuses on developing robotics and autonomous systems for space missions. I have over 20 years of research experience in robotic vision, perception, autonomy, and biomimetic mechanisms for addressing challenges in space and other extreme environments on Earth,” said Professor Gao.

The Centre for Robotics Research at King’s College London is dedicated to advancing robotics and artificial intelligence through interdisciplinary research. Professor Gao explained: “Our centre is dedicated to developing innovative solutions in robotics. From fundamental research to practical applications, we collaborate with academic institutions, industry partners, and government agencies to push the boundaries of robotics in fields like healthcare, manufacturing, and extreme environments.”

Extreme environments are settings that pose significant challenges due to harsh conditions. Professor Gao described these as: “Examples include space, with its vacuum, radiation, and temperature extremes; underwater environments with high pressure and low temperatures; and underground settings with lack of lighting, communication barriers, and limited access, as well as nuclear facilities with high radiation levels and hazardous materials.”

Robotics technology for extreme environments is rapidly evolving. Professor Gao highlighted that robots are increasingly designed to withstand harsh conditions and perform tasks that are dangerous or impossible for humans. “Current robots operate on the surface of Mars, explore deep underwater environments, or handle hazardous substances in nuclear plants.”

Developing robots for space exploration presents unique challenges. “The challenges could be around many different aspects, starting with environmental conditions like extreme temperatures and radiation. Communication latencies due to long distances cause significant delays, and ensuring a reliable energy supply is crucial. Robots must make decisions independently due to communication latencies, and durability and maintenance are continuous challenges because robots must be highly reliable with minimal maintenance.”

Addressing reliability and robustness involves several design approaches. Professor Gao explained: “Redundancy is important, incorporating multiple systems to ensure continued operation if one fails. Using durable materials that can withstand extreme conditions sustainably, and enhancing AI capabilities to enable real-time autonomous decision-making, are crucial. Thorough testing, including extensive simulations and field tests, is also a critical part of the design and development process.”

Artificial intelligence plays a significant role in enhancing the capabilities of robots. “We apply machine learning to improve sensing and perception capabilities for navigation and localisation tasks. AI allows robots to learn and adapt to new environments, improving their adaptability and decision-making processes based on sensory data, enabling minimalistic human intervention.”

Looking ahead, Professor Gao sees several promising trends and technologies shaping the next decade of robotics for extreme environments. “Advancing AI, particularly research to decode explainability and improve transparency in AI designs, biomimetics for more energy-efficient locomotion capabilities, and advanced materials to improve performance under extreme conditions are key areas. Quantum computing could revolutionise processing power and decision-making capabilities in robots. Any research topic offering improvements in energy efficiency, cost reduction, and sustainability will shape the next generation of robotics for extreme environments.”

Collaboration between academia and industry is crucial for space research and innovation. “Academia provides cutting-edge research and theoretical foundations, while industry offers practical applications and realistic challenges. Partnerships and joint projects help translate research into real-world solutions.”

Professor Gao's insights highlight the exciting advancements and future potential in robotics for extreme environments.

To hear more about robotics and much more, you can listen to Electronic Specifier’s interview with Yang Gao on Spotify or Apple podcasts.

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