26 July

Fifth anniversary of the NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network

There is little doubt that we are on the brink of an enormous transformation to a society where robotics technologies are omnipresent. This process is one that is unstoppable, unprecedented and which promises immense opportunities.

Robotics technologies have already become quite familiar, including the iconic "classical robots" like the automated vacuum cleaners or flying drone vehicles, but also indisputably robotic devices like automated teller machines and washing machines, all of which sense their immediate environment, make computations, and transform their computations into tangible physical form.

"So, what is a robot anyhow", you might ask? Robotics in its broadest form can be defined as the discipline concerned with both the development and modeling of systems that (1) make measurements of the real world, (2) perform computations, and then (3) act upon the real world in some substantial way. By this definition, more and more of the objects in our everyday world are becoming robots, and this is happening rapidly. This includes, of course, cell phones, cars, security systems, and many of the appliances in our homes. The microwave oven in my own home, for example, measures the weight and humidity of food we put into it, computes the appropriate cooking time and power levels needed, and then acts upon the food to cook it. As almost every object within our lives becomes computationally enabled, myriad new challenges, opportunities and advantages in everyday life are starting to emerge.

The constructs of computer science (such as computer operating systems) are already the most complex things mankind has ever built. Devices that cross the boundary between software and hardware -- that is robotic devices -- push this limit such further. Thus, as the science of robotics, including the associated disciplines of artificial intelligence and machine learning advance, we are finding new challenges not only in terms or what want to achieve, but also in terms of how to understand and manage the systems we build, and how to best exploit them.

The NSERC Canadian Field Robotic Network, with its base at McGill, recently celebrated its fifth anniversary. In the last five years is has funded and graduated some 75 students with advanced degrees (PhD and MSc), funded some 285 person-years of advanced research, and led to the publications of hundreds of scientific papers. This, in turn, has led to new ideas transferred to our partner companies, new employees, and several seed or startup companies at various stages. Most importantly, it has allowed the Canadian robotics research community to grow, link together and build collaborations and synergies within the country.

The competitive pressure is immense today with vast amounts of robotics funding being deployed in the US, Japan Korea, Singapore, the European Union, the United Kingdom and other places. By funding our own national research programs we have allowed some truly amazing internationally recognized talent to develop and flourish. Even better, by exposing our students to the diversity and richness of Canadian talent, we have been able to retain more of them in the country. Going forward, we need to maintain our focus, plan how we deploy our resources and build a cohesive national plan.

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
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