Robots on the rise thanks to SA innovation
From sweeping streets to teaching kids, South African brainboxes are carving out a niche in the robotic revolution
Imagine a robot crossing a power line to do an inspection, teaching robotics to schoolchildren, silently crossing the Southern Ocean collecting data … or simply cleaning the street.
For better or for worse, the robotic revolution has reached a tipping point across the globe, and these innovations are carving out a niche for South Africa.
Edward Boje, of the University of Cape Town, who is involved in the power line robot project, said: “The robot’s ability reduces the need for helicopter inspections or to put live-line workers on the lines.
“Our robot is one-fifth the weight of the only real competitor internationally so it is much easier to deploy in the field.”The robot, which started life as a joint project between Eskom and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, has been demonstrated in South Africa, New Zealand, Japan and the US, and is nearing production stage.
Litterbot vs litterbugs
Jordan Boyle, a South African engineer working at Leeds University in the UK, is developing a small robot that can pick up litter.
Swarms of the robots would act co-operatively, and would use an arm than can pick up a variety of objects. It would have fingers and a suction channel so, for example, a cigarette butt would be vacuumed up, a chip packet would be held against the palm using suction, and a cooldrink can would be gripped.
“We are imagining an application where, for example, this could be used to clean up after a festival in a park. But what we ultimately imagine is that instead of street-sweeper trucks you have swarms of these robots doing that work,” said Boyle.
His department is also working on robots that could repair the roads. “Before a pothole becomes a pothole, it is just a little crack. We are imagining sensors detecting cracks in the road, and then late at night, when there is no traffic, a flying-drone-type robot with something to a similar to 3D printer could come and fill the cracks in to patch it up,” he said.Programmed for fun
In Cape Town, two young UCT graduates, Tyrone van Balla and Ridhaa Benefeld, have created a start-up called RD9 Solutions that uses technology to tackle issues in South Africa’s divided society.
Their first innovation is the charming MiiA, a small self-assembly robot designed to help primary school children learn about robotics, programs and electronics from a young age and in a fun and stimulating way.“We feel that one of the factors limiting a wider exploration of robotics in South Africa is the cost, and also the accessibility of the field to South Africa’s population. This is something we’re positive will change in the near future,” Van Balla and Benefeld said.
They’re passionate about education because it is a two-way street: “We’re using education to make robotics more accessible, while using robotics to support further development and learning is the skill of tomorrow.”
According to Boje, the government “understands the importance of the robotics field and is helping to build research capacity”, but the “scale of funding makes it hard to compete internationally”.
The Department of Science and Technology recently funded the launch of a national robotics strategy managed by the CSIR, which is developing unmanned robotic vessels that will be used for scientific surveys of the Southern Ocean.Helping hand
Meanwhile, at Wits University, a robotic hand controlled by brainwaves is being developed for amputees by a team led by Abdul-Khaaliq Mohamed, a PhD candidate in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering.
It relies on brainwaves extracted via electrodes on the skull and on muscle signals to instruct the movements of the artificial hand. It will enable people with motor disabilities to “write, hold a glass, or shake a hand”, said Mohamed.Quick study
Then there are robots inspired by animals and how they move, a niche in which UCT’s Dr Amir Patel – currently on sabbatical at Carnegie Mellon University in the US – is leading a research team.By studying then simulating the sophisticated design of how a cheetah uses its tail to remain stable at high speed and suddenly stop without falling over, Patel has taken a step closer to the ultimate search-and-rescue robot.
While many international robotics experts are “investigating robots that can achieve top speed”, Patel’s research group is instead focusing on manoeuvrability in a bid to “increase the agility of robots”, he said. “This is a niche area which has only sparsely been investigated.”