EDGE OF DISCOVERY
First in a series of articles on cutting-edge research at Harvard.
On a visit to one Harvard robotics lab, the sewing machines stand out, while the head of another explains how and why lab members are studying termites in Namibia.
Welcome to the new age of machines, in which scientists with seemingly disparate talents are using cutting-edge materials, cheap sensors, 3-D printing, and powerful computers to accelerate advances in robotics.
Prior innovations transformed the factory and warehouse, but those robots work best in controlled environments, usually out of public view. For researchers at Harvard and elsewhere, one new target is Main Street. “We were promised these things by sci-fi for 50 years,” said Robert Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “So where are the robots?”
The next generation will venture widely into the real world, trekking through forests and fields, driving around town, and covering chores. Major retailers such as Amazon are frank about their desire to deliver packages with drones, automakers want your car to steer itself, and for those who can’t find the time to vacuum the living room rug, there’s a robot for that.
But tomorrow’s machines won’t just drop you off, deliver your packages, and clean your house. They will also search for disaster victims and help farm food, experts say. They’ll fight wars, brace limbs, and heal hearts.
“Certainly, the technology is now there, and there’ve been some developments over the last decade that allow us to build robots good enough to deal with the real world,” said Robert Howe, the Abbott and James Lawrence Professor of Engineering.