The robots are coming, as we’ve been hearing for quite a while. Nearby, in The Hague, scientists, engineers and TU Delft students are working on robots we might encounter in the coming years, for instance in an abandoned factory.
Racks, stacked sky-high. Dozens of them, row after row. He entered unseen, but without proper directions he would never have found the compartment where the latest iPhones are stored. Just try to make sense of the jungle of barcodes hanging here. Easy navigation for a picking robot of course, but totally useless for a human being. Then again, this hall isn’t meant for humans. He only has to climb up a metre. That’s not too bad. As he holds on to a post with one arm and fumbles around inside the compartment with the other, he glimpses a device approaching around the corner. It resembles a moving trash can, apart from the haze of purplish light beneath its bulk. Rolling at considerable speed, the robot navigates between the racks. Just keep hanging quietly and nothing will happen. Suddenly, the robot stops. Its purple light turns red. A camera under its plastic dome turns his way. It makes a sound: “Shunplees”. The robot approaches, the camera swivels up, and a light turns on around the lens. “Identification, please.” Now he understands. Silly thing. He jumps off the racking, kicks the robot and runs away.
“We do not make robot bodies”, Lustig clarifies. He estimates that robot SAM is a procured platform for 60% and 40% self-built. What RSS adds to the mix are primarily sensors and sensor data fusion and intelligence. The actual production of robots also happens outside the company. Here, on a floor and in the basement of the Lobeco Fire + Security company near Benoordenhout in The Hague, forty men and women employed by Robot Robots Company and its subsidiaries, most of them originating from Delft University of Technology, work on robots that can collaborate with people in clever ways to the benefit of security, geriatric care and passenger transport.
“We procure a blind system, and teach it how to see”, explains Jonker, the man who introduced robot soccer in the Netherlands. This professor of Intelligent Vehicles & Cognitive Robotics envisions ‘seeing’ – i.e. perception – as the beginning. After that, the questions start: Where am I? What is coming at me? And what should I do about it? That brings us into the field of cognitive robotics. “A security company does not provide a guy with a moustache; it supplies security through cameras, surveillance cars, security guards, an emergency centre and possibly a robot. The robot can take on a number of jobs, including surveillance. A robot will probably do that job better than a security guard who is making the same round for the umpteenth time and is mostly focused on getting back to his post as soon as possible. If a security company can deploy 1.5 to 2 fewer people, they will be able to lower their price bids considerably”, says Lustig, who has worked in the security industry for fifteen years. “In those days, I apprehended three intruders, but I fired twenty employees for sleeping on the job.” Robots do not have those problems. Jonker (aged 64) launched a business alongside his professorship to safeguard his research legacy after he retired, since it was unclear if he would have a successor. The whole adventure has taught him a great deal about putting his knowledge into practice. “We have had a time when the emphasis was on publications. That is all nice for the rankings, but it does not put the technology on the market in the Netherlands. That only really happens when you bring a bunch of your graduates together in a company. Pieter Kruit (AS) did that with Mapper. He was my role model. I do that with my companies too now. And I’ll have more time for it as from next year.” The irony is that Jonker will in fact have a successor as of 1 April 2016, namely Dr Dariu Gavrilla, originally from Daimler Chrysler, who will focus mainly on data fusion, pattern recognition and deep learning in intelligent vehicles.