Controlling a robot with a smartphone may sound like child’s play, but to James Kuffner Jr., it’s serious business. Kuffner, who is currently on leave as an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh to work for Google as a research engineer, says the advent of smartphones and faster wireless connections is making the notion of cloud-based robotics a reality.
Just as thin clients move computing power from a laptop into cloud-based servers, robots also no longer need to carry around information or handle processing-intensive tasks such as vision recognition internally, which means they can be built lighter and at less cost. Google dramatically demonstrated this fact last year when it set eight self-driving Toyota Priuses loose on California’s heavily trafficked roadways. Together, the cars clocked more than 140,000 miles using video cameras, radar sensors, and a laser range finder, along with Google Maps and data processing, which allowed them to “see” surrounding traffic. The project’s ultimate goal is to study ways to prevent traffic accidents and reduce carbon emissions, as well as change the way in which cars are used.
“This really hasn’t been something that has been taken seriously, because connectivity to a cloud requires a lot of infrastructure and, at least years ago, it was thought of as being too expensive,” says Kuffner. But now, he says, cloud services from companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are making possible the idea of linking robots with remote servers via reliable, high-speed, high-bandwidth networks. As Kuffner explains, “Mobile devices with high bandwidth and great connectivity and strong signals anywhere are something people now take for granted. So it totally makes sense that a robot could have a wireless antenna cheaply made and could offload processing or data storage to cloud services.”