The Science for Technological Innovation National Science Challenge Board has provided $2m in funding for a two-year interdisciplinary research programme to examine how next-generation robots can work with humans in a safe and flexible manner.
Researchers will focus on developing robots to work in small-scale manufacturing and unforgiving outdoor environments. The board said such technology could become a global specialty of New Zealand robotics businesses, with great export opportunities and long-term solutions for the country’s economic needs.”
Robotics experts from Lincoln Agritech and Scion along with researchers and PhD students from the universities of Auckland, Canterbury, Massey, Otago, Victoria and Waikato will take part in the programme.
The project will be coordinated by Lincoln Agritech group manager in precision agriculture, Dr Armin Werner, Will Browne, associate professor at Victoria University of Wellington, and associate professor Johan Potgieter of Massey University. They will work with an industry advisory group that will include robot manufacturers, food and manufacturing industries, Māori businesses and government funding agencies.
The board said the programme would lay the groundwork for follow-up projects over the next few years that would focus on making New Zealand a competitive country for the production and use of robots in small-scale, flexible manufacturing businesses and challenging environments such as those found in agriculture and forestry.
Dr Werner said the programme would advance the science required for a new generation of industrial robotic solutions. "These robots can provide enormous benefits to the primary and manufacturing sectors,” he said.
“Both industries require fast adaptation to different products and markets, and constant responsiveness to changing outdoor environments. The robots can assist with complex tasks such as pruning tree or vine crops, safely felling trees on steep slopes or assembling small batches of appliances on demand."
To develop the technology, researchers will investigate how sensors and artificial intelligence can allow robots to perceive and understand their surroundings, flexibly handle new situations through learning or training by humans or other robots, and work in challenging environments.
Werner said that, throughout the project the robots would work collaboratively with humans and behave safely around both people and animals.
"The robots will be adaptable and create new solutions for the often small-scale and highly flexible production environment in New Zealand and many other comparable regions in the world,” he said. “The targeted innovation represents a major shift from the notion of isolated robots solving single tasks."
The technology is expected to help New Zealand’s industries thrive globally and create an international hub for innovative robotics development.