In one of the dystopian episodes of Netflix’s Black Mirror, we’re shown a world that looks anything like a current-day setting. Until we meet the robot dogs who are anything but friendly, that is.
The thing about these episodes is that they present a version of a future that while fictional, are not very far off. In fact, robots just like these have made the rounds in videos circulating on social media, including one that danced to a beat.
Meanwhile, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Mechatronics department has been doing work to fill the knowledge gaps in the existing research. Led by Dr. Amir Patel, they’re one of the first groups exploring the space. Designed by masters student Alexander Blom over a duration of two years, Baleka, the two-legged robot was a breakthrough.
Its design and optimisation included Blom writing a unique algorithm in order to dictate parameters to determine speed and stopping.
Speaking to Patel via email, he shared that the robot was specifically designed for manoeuvrability. “We are focused on acceleration. The end goal is a robot capable of on-the-fly adaptations in a time-critical mission,” he explains.
With advances in the team’s current research, he envisions robots being deployed in disaster situations or in the automation of mundane, repetitive tasks. One of the other scenarios he imagines is robots in the mining sector, taking away the need to place human lives in extreme conditions.
“Robots could go in and drill or blast the rock and gather the ore all under the supervision of human supervisors safe in their offices,” he says.
This raises the question of whether automation is in fact good for the country, given the less than savoury employment rates. According to StatsSA, at the end of 2018 South Africa was seeing an unemployment rate of 27.1%.
Patel is optimistic, citing instances in history that had experienced moments of radical innovation that changed the industry for the better. He mentions the aviation industry to demonstrate his point: “In the 1950’s, inertial navigation systems were introduced in aircraft. This sadly removed the jobs of navigators but made aviation much safer and as a result the industry grew exponentially, creating a massive ecosystem of employment. I think robots have the same potential.”
Before robots stealing our jobs becomes a major concern, there is still a long way to go in terms of building up the robotics industry and fostering the environments that allow it to thrive. Patel says that government and industry funding is a real need, both to cover research projects and experimentation, and to cover students’ education in the field.
This in turn results in a lack in the number of postgraduate students at masters and PhD level, the stage at which most of the research occurs.
The development of Baleka then, is indeed an achievement against the odds.
“As Africans I think we are bestowed with the ability to persevere and as such are still able to be competitive in terms of new technology development,” says Patel.
Baleka is only step one in the team’s trajectory - they hope to develop the technology further to create a four-legged robot.
Visuals courtesy of UCT News.