Robot conference also beckons humanitarian tech

5:08 min

This week, the annual International Conference on Robotics and Automation trundled into the Swedish capital, bringing together robotics researchers and companies from around the world to present and exhibit their work - and even compete.

Talks, exhibitions, tutorials and workshops sprawl over several floors of a conference center in downtown Stockholm.

Four competitions or "challenges" are taking place at the conference, and the one that seems to get the most attention involves developing machining technology for the manufacture of airplanes. The noise of drilling robots is so loud that somebody is walking around with a big box full of earplugs.

But tucked away in a room upstairs is a much quieter competition, where contestants have been working on software which would allow a robot to detect landmines. On one wall is a real-time video projection of a robot on a grassy field in Coimbra, Portugal; it is moving according to the algorithms the teams have designed, and attempting to detect fake land mines there.

Edson Prestes, one of the organizers of the Humanitarian Robotics and Automation Technology Challenge and a professor of robotics research at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, explains that the teams are competing to develop the best algorithm.

"This robot has a lot of sensors, like metal detection, laser sensors, cameras and so on, and the goal of the challenge is to program this robot to map these landmines autonomously. So the robot should move, should decide where to move, should also detect the landmines and avoid crossing the landmines," Prestes tells Radio Sweden.

The winner's algorithm will be used as the basis for next year's contest, where contestants will refine it. Prestes hopes that in about four years, the software will be ready to use.

Tushar Vaidya is one of the contestants. His other two teammates are working on the contest remotely from India. He took part in the challenge to make people's lives better.

"It will impact masses," says Vaidya. "That's what matters to me. And to change the world right now, to make a safer place - we need such technologies to be implemented on humanitarian causes."

"We need more challenges like this," Vaidya adds.

Elsewhere at the conference, a robotic dog named Able, designed as a tool for research into how people will interact with robots, cocks its head and blinks at bemused humans. Nearby, a lifesized humanoid robot named Reem-C uses his pointer finger to follow the movement of an object in space. A researcher from the University of Genoa gestures with a smart watch on his wrist to control the movements of a robotic lawn mower. And in the lobby, a man wields a robot's hand to grab the leg of a 14-month-old baby, who appears unfussed.

Danica Kragic, Director of the Centre for Autonomous Systems at KTH, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and one of the organizers of the conference tells Radio Sweden that one exciting development is how "big data", information about human behavior, is used to teach "robots how to get smarter".

Kragic is also noticing "more and more systems that are able to interact with natural objects in natural environments, for example, having a robot be able to detect a human, follow a human, shake hands with humans."