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The shape of things to come

Readers of this blog should be used, by now, to my banging on about androids–robots made to resemble human form. I think they’re relics from early science fiction written by people who knew how to write a good story, but lacked a full understanding of robots’ role in future society.

The android is a good plot device. It invokes primal reactions that can be manipulated to engage readers in the story. Depending on what you, as an author, want for your story, an android can be a protagonist or a villain. You can make your readers love it, hate it, pity it, or bond with it. A non-anthropomorphic robot that looks like a rolling hatbox excites –nothing.

In the real world, however, where we want robots to be technological servants that do a job as cheaply and conveniently (for us) as possible, the android form is generally worse than useless. It carries baggage that more often than not will interfere with its accomplishing its primary function, whatever that primary function is supposed to be.

Rather than waste your design time trying to work within anthropomorphic constraints, a much better strategy is to let the needs of the task define the robot’s morphology. A case in point is the FluxCrawler designed by Drs. Jochen Kurz and Klaus Szielasko at the Fraunhofer IZFP (Institute for Nondestructive Testing) in Saarbrücken, Germany.

The job this little guy is designed for is to climb up or crawl along (depending on the physical arrangement of the work environment) a tension-holding steel cable looking for structural flaws. An archetypical situation would be checking out supporting cables on a suspension bridge or an elevator. This task certainly fits all Three  “Ds” of Robotics: Dull, Dirty and Dangerous. You would not want to ask a human technician to climb any of those cables carrying a fluxmeter in a backpack.

According to information published recently by Scientific Computing, FluxCrawler holds onto the steel cable under test via a magnetic field. The unit divides the cable into linear sections, running magnetic-flux sensors over the surface of each section looking for stray flux driven out of the cable by cracks in the steel. It makes a pass along one side of a section, then moves around the cable a bit to check another side, then moves around a bit more, and checks again, and so forth until it has checked all around the outside of that section. Then, it will crawl up or along the cable to the next section, and circle around it. Then, it will crawl to the next section, circle it, and so forth until the entire cable length is done. With this system, there is theoretically no limit to the diameter or length of the cable to be tested.

At each pass on each section, FlexCrawler induces a static magnetic field within the cable itself, and looks for excess magnetic flux leaking out of the cable side. The flux should pass axially through the ferromagnetic cable, but flaws caused by breaks or oxidation typically introduce non-magnetic or diamagnetic spots that interrupt the flux flow. The flux then then bends out of the cable to avoid the flaw, creating a magnetic anomaly in the space next to the cable. FluxCrawler alerts its host computer via Bluetooth communications, telling not only where along the cable the anomaly appears, but at what angle around the periphery. Armed with that information, technicians can zero in on the spot to determine what to do.

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.

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