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Cover Article on Robotics in Mechanical Engineering Magazine Is by ODU's Noor

Old Dominion University faculty member Ahmed Noor reviews the field of robotics in the November cover story for the magazine Mechanical Engineering, and concludes that the United States has some catching up to do.

Noor is the eminent scholar and William E. Lobeck Professor of Aerospace Engineering as well as the director of ODU's Center for Advanced Engineering Environments (CAEE) in Hampton.

Robots are beginning to live up to their promise-dating back to the early 20th century-to relieve humans of some of their most difficult chores, Noor writes in the article. "Contemporary robots are used for jobs that are boring, dirty or dangerous; or for tasks that require more speed, precision or endurance than a human can provide."

He cites current uses of robotics for welding and painting on assembly lines, in space landing crafts and rovers, and for instruments used in medicine and precise surgical procedures. But he strikes a cautionary note, pointing out that the United States has lost its pre-eminence in industrial robotics and that today nearly all of the country's robots for welding, painting and assembly are imported from Japan and Europe. Overall, Noor writes, Japan and South Korea have become leaders in technology for human-like robots, Australia is the top producer of robots for field work in areas such as mining, and Europe leads in structured-environment robotics for purposes such as care of the elderly.

The United States' primary focus in recent years has been on robotics for defense-related applications, according to Noor's article. To expand the nation's work in the field, U.S. leaders in robotics participated in a recent series of workshops and launched an initiative in January to formulate a research and development road map for nonmilitary applications, he writes.

Noor reviews new categories of autonomous and mobile robots that have expanded the applications of robotics. Cognitive robots are endowed with artificial reasoning skills to achieve complex goals in complex environments. Neurorobotics combines neuroscience with robotics, and is coming up with devices with control systems that mimic the nervous system. Evolutionary robotics aims to produce devices that acquire skills through close interaction with the environment.

So what has new-fangled robotics already given us? Noor describes in the article: a four-legged robot that can climb on rough terrains or other places where accessibility is difficult and carry heavy loads; a snake-like robot that can maneuver underwater or in tight terrestrial spots to search for earthquake victims and do other chores; and a big, bug-like robot that fights forest fires.

In an interview, Noor said, "Intelligent, autonomous and network robotic systems are expected to become the next disruptive transformative technology, and to have a profound impact on many aspects of our personal and professional lives."

He believes, for example, that mobile robotic displays will provide flexibility in the workplace and living areas. "Robotic self-assembling, self-reconfiguring and self-repairing modules, along with the connectors between the modules, will enable the creation of arbitrary and changing smart office and home furniture. A stool can become a chair, and a set of chairs can become a sofa."

Publication of the November issue of Mechanical Engineering with the Noor cover story coincided with the professor's opportunity to showcase the work at CAEE for more than 100 engineers and manufacturing representatives who were in Hampton for the 2008 North American Regional Summit of NAFEMS, the international arbiter of standards in computer-assisted engineering.

The visitors toured CAEE to get Noor's take on how the engineering simulation industry will evolve between now and 2020, and a significant portion of his presentation focused on robotics. Among the technologies being developed and tested at CAEE are those that allow people to communicate orally with computers. Unlike clumsy voice-activation systems of the past, these new interfaces are much more like person-to-person communications and have valuable uses in robotics.

Noor delivered the opening keynote address for the NAFEMS summit, titled "Pathway to Future Computer-Aided Engineering Technologies and Their Role in Ambient Intelligent Environments."

This article was posted on: November 4, 2008

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