What is field robotics?
While “field robotics” may conjure images of a robot literally in a field, those agricultural robots represent a tiny fraction of the term’s scope. Field robotics is robotic applications occurring in unstructured environments where conditions cannot be controlled. This includes mines, agriculture, construction, and even outer space; the examples of field robots are nearly endless.
Field robotics is driven by the same trends driving commercial robotics in general–labor shortages, cost containment, and offloading boring or dangerous activities. However, field robotics has additional applications, such as addressing climate change, advancing research, and proactive monitoring. This wide range of use cases has catalyzed the growth of this class of robots.
Field robotics benefits
Many harsh and dangerous environments aren’t ideal for human workers, such as remote wilderness, far corners of farms, mines, military targets… even the moon. Humans aren’t particularly durable or consistent. We get injured, tired, and lost, and must breathe, eat, and sleep. But humans can problem-solve, avoid hazards, and recover from errors on the fly. That meant deploying humans was often the only option.
But robots are catching up by leveraging cloud computing. Field robots no longer must run expensive functions locally. This cost savings leaves room for more sensors, communication equipment, and mobility while making field robots more capable of autonomous behavior, sparking roboticist imaginations everywhere.
Newer field robots, such as Spot from Boston Dynamics, navigate rough terrain more nimbly than earlier generations of rolling robots developed for indoor use. More nimble robot “arms and legs” combined with increasingly sensitive sensors and communication equipment have changed the math, enabling field robots to perform more and more tasks previously reserved for humans.
Technology enabling field robotics
The new generation of field robots utilizes the same technology as their (typically) indoor cousins. This includes sensors, longer-life batteries, high-quality video cameras, and wireless communication, along with machine learning and AI.
Unlike their indoor brethren, field robots often operate in spaces humans often cannot or do not want to go. Instead of relying on pre-programmed maps or paths, they feature remote operation, also known as teleoperation. Using sensors, they collect environmental data, analyze it, and use their findings to decide what to do next using AI or machine learning, with human remote operators taking over as needed.
Since field robots aren’t often near an electrical outlet or gas station, they capitalize on the latest advances in battery and solar charging. This makes them more environmentally friendly while extending their uninterrupted time in the field.
So, where IS the field?
The short answer is, everywhere! Read on for some real-world examples of field robotics at work in a wide range of industries.
Field robots are used in agriculture both in greenhouses and in fields, either solo or alongside field workers. Greenhouse robots monitor air quality and check soil moisture levels. In the field, they inspect and monitor plant health with extreme precision. Agriculture robots also handle lifting, carrying and towing, planting, spraying, harvesting, weeding, and mowing. They’re increasingly harvesting fragile crops, picking only the ripe fruits with a delicate grasp.
Like their agricultural cousins, construction robots operate solo or as cobots working collaboratively with human workers. One key function is lifting and positioning heavy materials, saving wear and tear on people while reducing injuries. Demolition and excavation are also jobs now sometimes handled by construction robots. Other tasks in field robotics include those requiring precise, repetitive actions, such as bricklaying, or doing site layout and measurements. There are even robots that roam sites at night, noting progress and confirming they still match the plans.
Mining is dark, dirty, and dangerous, and a great application for field robots. An early use for robots in mining was exploration for gathering geologic information such as mine dimensions and layout as well as which minerals are present. Robots accompany miners like a digital canary, alerting workers when air quality declines. Robots can also more safely and accurately place blasting charges.
Search and rescue
The search-and-rescue subset of the public safety world is so bullish on robots, it established the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) in 2001, well before robotics became more mainstream. Search-and-rescue field robots come in all shapes and sizes. Tiny robots inspired by cockroaches get deployed post-disaster and find people trapped in the wreckage while sending back a wealth of information about the rubble. Drones have obvious uses for finding lost hikers, but their visual sensors are less helpful in fog or smoke or snow. A new drone application using sound is filling that gap. After locating survivors, search-and-rescue teams in the not-so-distant future could use a WALK-MAN remote-controlled avatar to bring them to safety.
Deep sea, space, and other exploration
Some field robots allow humans to reach locations we’ve only dreamed of in the past, like outer space or the deep seas. These environments are extremely inhospitable to human life, but field robotics has made it possible to perform tasks such as exploring inside active volcanoes, mapping the deep sea floor, and searching for water at the moon’s south pole. In many cases, robots are the only option for studying these challenging locations.
Their ability to operate in remote or harsh environments has enticed innovative researchers in a number of fields. University of Pennsylvania researchers have created a robot named RHex for studying the desert, navigating over shifting sands while collecting environmental information. RHex uses AI to analyze data in the field to determine which locations to go next for additional sample collection. Others use robots to map the floor of the ocean, noting the impacts of climate change and searching for new life forms.