Everyone is talking about how automation is the future, one where we see robots beyond industrial factories that do repetitive, assembly-line tasks. We are talking about robots like Baymax from the Disney movie, ‘Big Hero 6’, a personal healthcare companion who can detect vital stats and treat nearly any ailment with a simple scan.
Baymax is a revolution in the healthcare industry, but like most people, you probably haven’t met a robot like him. Then again, we live in a time of rapid development, especially in the realm of technology — we already have sci-fi gadgets popping up in real life, like mobile phones or Alexa. So even if you have not met Baymax yet, you will — because you can make it happen.
Beyond faceless robots
Once rare, robots that are adept, mobile, and smart are now becoming more commonplace, and designed to live and work with humans.
Around the world, autonomous robots have been utilised for a wide range of tasks within the factory floor, such as being part of assembly lines, sorting out deliveries, and shelving goods at warehouses. They are also increasingly sought after in dynamic, unstructured environments to help perform tasks that are too laborious and/or dangerous for humans. Field robots help perform jobs, such as picking fruits, cleaning floors, and border patrols.
As technology advances, field robots are increasingly performing more challenging and meaningful tasks, such as helping victims regain the use of their limbs, performing religious ceremonies, and helping people socialise.
And this was all before the COVID-19 pandemic; now, reducing human contact is becoming more medically wise and widely accepted. What has been realised as a tool for efficiency has now become more prudent for health and safety. In Singapore, we have already seen them working alongside humans in our fight against COVID-19, but not as Baymax.
We saw autonomous disinfecting robots that self-navigate around tight places. We saw robot dogs wandering around Singapore’s parks, encouraging pedestrians to maintain social distance.
Autonomous robots now prepare our meals and ferry people across campuses. Given their efficiency, our dependence on robots will stretch way beyond the pandemic crisis.
Build the next-gen robot
If you are interested in engineering, robotics, or solving problems, you can have a hand in building a real-life Baymax. Your next invention could very well save lives, increase healthcare efficiency, and give you a sense of life satisfaction. What you can create is only limited to your imagination — if you are a big thinker who can bring ideas out of the box, all you need is a little guidance.
The Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) has just rolled out its inaugural Bachelor of Engineering in Robotics Systems programme, which is designed to equip its graduates with knowledge to design and develop field robotics systems that are capable of tasks beyond factory shop floors.
Professor Quek Tong Boon, Chief Executive of the National Robotics Programme, welcomes the setting up of the RSE programme. “Robotics is already widely used in manufacturing and we expect to see an even greater adoption of industrial robots in the coming years. With advances in technology that enable robots to interact more naturally, intelligently, and safely with humans in people-centric environments, there will be more robots expected in our service sectors and public spaces. We need to nurture more roboticists to support such increased adoptions,” he said.
This means integrating multiple engineering disciplines, from Robotics that deal with the design and development of mechatronics sub-systems, to System Engineering that looks at the efficiency of the robotics system. This is complemented by Software Development modules that integrate the hardware with the mechatronic elements — including Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms that give the machine human-like learned behaviour.
Components like Robotics and Systems Engineering will give you the knowledge to create the actual look and performance of robots. Rather than the menacing T-800 of Terminator, it can be a friendly, inflatable Baymax, equipped with defibrillators for hands and disinfectant-dispensing fingers. An important element of a robot like Baymax is the Software portion that gives it access to an enormous database of medical information, and an AI component that gives it a “personality”. In Baymax, it is its processing chip that gives it a caregiving matrix that responds to the sound of distress.
Presently, people may be hesitant to see a doctor who is not human, but perhaps good design can change this perception. However, robots are not only useful in the realm of healthcare. They are capable of heavy lifting, storing data, and being a walking, talking version of your mobile phone, so imagine the possibilities in areas like infrastructure, eldercare, aerospace, education, and more.
SIT does not just teach you these disciplines — after building a foundation of knowledge, you will work in small teams on specialised topics, because a significant amount of the programme is project-based. Much like in real life, it allows you to simultaneously experience systems, software engineering, and multiple disciplines, in addition to project management.
The third year is a 12-month Integrated Work Study Programme (IWSP) with a company, where you will put your skills to real-world use. This experience will be crucial by the final year, when you will continue with your specialised module and work on your capstone project.
By the time you graduate, you will be joining the ranks of other roboticists like Satoshi Shigemi (creator of ASIMO), Marc Raibert (creator of the Boston Dynamics robots), and David Hanson, who created Sophia, one of the most advanced androids currently.
Roboticists dream of machines that make life better
While Singapore is advancing towards its goal of realising its Smart Nation ambitions, there is still a lack of talent. This means that there is a very high chance of employment and/or entrepreneurial opportunities upon graduation.
The workplace of the near future is an ecosystem of humans and robots working together to maximise efficiency. According to the Ministry of Trade and Industry Singapore (MTI), over 4,400 industrial robots have been installed in 2017, representing an increase of 72% from 2016, a testament to the increasing demand for field/service robots in an era of automation.
Be part of the future today
SIT’s admissions period for AY2021 is now open till 19 March 2021, and if you want to have a feel of what the BEng in Robotics Systems programme entails, SIT will hold a Virtual Open House (VOH) on 16, 17, 23, and 24 January 2021. Featuring talks by SIT professors and administrators, as well as virtual campus tours, the VOH offers you the chance to discover the University’s suite of degree programmes, and experience a taste of campus life.
You can peruse SIT’s events calendar and register your interest to attend the VOH at https://www.singaporetech.edu.sg/openhouse/.