Ahead of the Robotics and AI Industry Showcase, Tharsus' CTO Dave Swan chats to KTN about his love for robots and the opportunities for businesses.
Dave Swan, CTO, Tharsus Group
Where does your passion for robotics/AI come from?
As a kid I had a “Big Trak” and it was a great insight in programming of a physical thing to do a task on its own, even if the task was “annoy my sister and taunt the dog”. It was magic!
The big ‘light bulb’ moment though actually was a light bulb – it was the time I cut a hole into a Hornby Model Railway layout, placed a bulb in it and used wires and connections to get that bulb to light up. It was my first experience of making something work and it literally sparked my lifetime interest in engineering and science.
How does this technology make our lives better?
Technology can solve the pressing problem of doing more with less. It can create complex things more quickly and reliably, to a more consistent standard. Consumers can benefit from more reliable, flexible and generally improved customer service.
There are other advantages in terms of optimising product and production. AI and machine learning in design for example can spot and incorporate trends in a way that humans would miss and maybe not understand, but which nonetheless have value to the completed design.
What barriers do businesses face in their adoption and implementation of new RAI technologies?
Legislative frameworks are not in place as this is all so new, which is a significant issue. There are many specific areas to consider and provide guidance on, for example, in terms of safety. You may be able to demonstrate the robot itself is effectively safe, but the payload on the arm – that 3kg component/hammer on the end – is another matter. There is currently no way to validate the mitigation actions that you have put in place are legally “sufficient” and as such everyone has to approach it in their own way and make their own judgements. This is a barrier to many businesses looking to adopt these systems on a wider level.
There is also a fundamental disparity between the popular image of what’s involved in introducing RAI technology and the reality. It’s not an easy process and it’s not yet able to achieve what is implied in the popular media, which focuses on the extreme and most advanced examples of the technology at work, usually in tailored, well managed environments. This results in an over-expectation of what’s possible, a failure to deliver on what is desired and as a result, despondency. There is a need for all of us working with the technology to educate people about what is actually possible at this stage.
"Technology can solve the pressing problem of doing more with less. It can create complex things more quickly and reliably, to a more consistent standard."
Which industry or sector is ripe for mass adoption of RAI which isn’t currently exploiting the opportunity?
Agriculture. To date ventures into the technology have been small and sporadic but developments could really offer some high-impact solutions to the sector if adopted on a wider scale. A variety of difficulties deter widespread use of technology in the agricultural industry.
Firstly it tends to be an inherently conservative and grounded industry and experimenting is not particularly common. In addition the cost model makes substantial initial expenditure difficult and potentially even more risky because the value of any one unit, e.g. a single lettuce, is very low.
There is a chain link issue in that to make a difference you can’t just target one single aspect of the process. Any type of harvest is a long term cycle and each element impacts on the next. In addition the length of time taken to grow a crop to maturity, often a full year, means any mistakes will have long term impact. The risk of losing a year’s yield by trying something different which could fail is imposing.
However there is massive potential in this sector. For maximum yield you would want to look after every single seedling and optimise care given – currently impossible for human workers, but with robotic and automated solutions, achievable. Individual plant husbandry could be made standard. In modern, highly automated manufacturing industries yields in excess of 99% are not only common but expected. Imagine the impact on agriculture, if through individualised care of each seedling, the vast majority could be guaranteed to grow into healthy, nutritious plants.
Tharsus is supporting the RAI Showcase on the 12th March. Why should people come along?
I think the showcase is a great opportunity for anyone interested in getting started with the new technology or doing more with it than they have already. You’ll get to hear from people who have already done it for their company and understand the difference it made for them. It’s the ideal opportunity to enhance your own knowledge and understanding of what’s possible, make helpful connections, pick up some useful facts and gain inspiration from others.
Tell us more about the session you’re hosting?
‘Commercialising your innovation with Tharsus’ is all about the next step for those businesses which have successfully created an early stage innovation. It explains how they can take that creation a step further and generate a whole new income stream for their organisation by turning it into a commercial product. After all, if a solution has helped you, it will undoubtedly help others. We’re the expert guides for those businesses that have never been product owners and partners who can assist in entering a whole new market. The session is an opportunity to consider the wider possibilities and how your investment in innovation could be more rewarding than you may previously have thought.
Favourite fictional robot?
Sonny from iRobot, I read a fair bit of Isaac Asimov as a kid so I’m really intrigued by the consequences of “the three laws”.
Tickets are available for the RAI Industry Showcase here.