Last time, I started pontificating about the three Ds of robotics: dull, dirty, and dangerous; concentrating on the dull part. As you may recall, the three Ds are the task characteristics that tell mechatronics engineers that automation is likely a good idea. If a task is not dull, dirty, or dangerous, then it's probably best left as a manual task for humans to do. If you get a hit on any one of the three, then spending the time, effort, and money required to set up an automated system to accomplish the task is probably going to be worthwhile.
I started out with "dull" because it is probably the characteristic most often encountered that points to an automation need. This time, I'd like to spend some space on the second most common robot-need indicator: dangerous.
It is arguable that the most dangerous activity that humans spend significant time on is undersea exploration. What makes submarine operations so important is that the underwater world is close - it starts about twenty feet from my back door, just off the edge of the dock. It is the closest and easiest-to-access deadly alien environment around. Space is more alien and more dangerous, but infinitely harder to get to. The underwater world is right over there, tempting you to come out and play so that it can suck you down to your death!
On the other hand, there is a whole raft of things we'd like to go down there to do. While there have long been manned and remotely operated underwater vehicles to do them with, it is significant that autonomous undersea vehicles (AUVs) are now gaining notoriety for success at tasks that have previously proved intractable.
For example, as I was researching for this blog, an item came across my desk saying that the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGAR) claimed to have finally - after seventy-five years - located wreckage of aviatrix Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra aircraft on a reef off Nikumaroro Island in the South Pacific. The team used a combination of autonomous and remotely operated undersea vehicles to do so.
Why should AUVs be successful when other technologies fail?
I suggest that it boils down to persistence. Piloted and remotely operated vehicles are useful for spot checking sites on a limited basis, whereas autonomous systems can be deployed for longer term. If a system can be left on its own to complete its task without human supervision, the expensive humans - with the expensive technology needed to keep them functioning in a hostile environment - can go off to do something else, while the AUV spends as much time as it takes to do the job.
The TIGAR study used their AUV for mapping the whole reef to locate signs of wreckage. Then, they went back with the ROV to obtain more positive identification from the most promising spots.
C.G. Masi has been blogging about technology and society since 2006. In a career spanning more than a quarter century, he has written more than 400 articles for scholarly and technical journals, and six novels dealing with automation's place in technically advanced society. For more information, visit www.cgmasi.com.