SINGAPORE — In a future of shrinking birth rates and manpower shortages, Professor Chen I-Ming sees an obvious solution: Robots.
Driverless vehicles smart enough to make decisions about their routes, robots that do the heavily lifting and sorting in an airport or other logistics facility, coordinated groups of robots that can be deployed in dangerous places to carry out disaster rescue or surveillance work — our future could look just like that, with robots making our lives easier, if engineering researchers from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have their way.
Robots give us hope to move our jobs from a lower paying level that no one wants to do, and upgrade them to a level we all want to do.
Associate Professor Ang Wei Tech
Associate Chair of Research, School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
With an ageing population and low birth rates, Singapore faces the problems of maintaining productivity and manpower constraints, worsened by foreign labour policy restrictions, said Prof Chen. “People no longer want to do dirty jobs,” he said.
In 10 to 20 years, Prof Chen, who develops wearable robots such as those that can be used for physiotherapy, expects robots to be deployed in industries such as manufacturing, construction and cleaning. He is developing robots that can help stroke patients, such as by providing sensory feedback to a patient during physiotherapy sessions, with minimal supervision.
Associate Professor Ang Wei Tech, who is also Associate Chair of Research at the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, agreed: “Robots give us hope to move our jobs from a lower paying level that no one wants to do, and upgrade them to a level we all want to do.”
Robots that can function in Singapore’s airport, seaports and distribution centres — key to Singapore’s economy — could be just five years away, said Professor Wang Danwei of the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.
For example, at the airport, which calls for labour-intensive operations, multiple robots will work together to transport luggage from the check-in counter to the baggage claim area with minimal or no human intervention, minimising the number of human operators needed. The robots will be controlled by people in a central command and control station, said Prof Wang, whose work involves multi-robot coordination, where, using advanced computer algorithms. He has already reached out to Changi Airport to discuss testing the technology.
On the defence front, for example, coordinated robots in groups could be sent to fight our wars in place of soldiers. “That’s something very critical (because) in Singapore we have a very limited number of boys, and we want to save them for better jobs and better lives,” said Prof Wang.
Prof Wang, a recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation fellowship, also sees robots playing a part in surveillance, monitoring Singapore’s surrounding waters and detecting illegal immigrants or terrorists, as such tasks are tiring for humans. Because the robots can be made small, they can also move underwater without being detected.
They could also be sent into disaster-hit areas — where aftershocks could still endanger people — to search for and locate survivors and their vital signs in the disaster zone. The robots will also be able to convert sensor data into images that their human operators can easily understand, allowing crisis responders to optimise tasks and deploy resources efficiently, Prof Wang said.
In the years to come, Prof Chen, who is also Director of the Robotics Research Centre and the Intelligent Systems Centre at NTU, believes robots will become more intelligent. Cloud data could provide collective intelligence for robots, allowing them to learn not only from their experiences with humans, but also from other robots.
And, said Prof Wang, robotic technology could also pervade aspects of our daily lives by providing an additional transport option such as driverless vehicles. “This way, most of the population can use a combination of mass transportation and local networks of autonomous vehicles,” he said. “People don’t need to buy cars.”
While the researchers acknowledge the gap between building lab prototypes and robots that are robust enough to be deployed in real-life applications, as well as the challenge of moving research to the commercial market, they are certain that more collaborations between researchers and companies will bring it to fruition.
A joint research lab, the ST Engineering-NTU Corporate Lab, was started this year and will receive S$53 million in funding. Prof Wang and ST Engineering’s Vice-President Paul Tan are co-directors of the lab, which focuses mainly on technology development for airport operations and disaster rescue missions.
For robots to become commonplace, public acceptance is also needed. Prof Wang believes that having autonomous vehicles on busy urban roads is likely to come only after society accepts the presence of autonomous robots in other sectors, like logistics.
Assoc Prof Ang, who is working on a surgical robotic arm to reduce hand tremor for surgeons, as well as a robotic arm for packing work in hospitals, added: “A lot of things that use robotic technology will eventually become mainstream, and people won’t realise that it’s in fact robotics technology in the first place.”