Prefab revolution? Factory houses are the secret to green building

Karen Manley, Associate Professor at Queensland University of Technology

The building sector globally currently consumes more energy (34%) than the transport sector (27%) or the industry sector (28%). It is also the biggest polluter, with the biggest potential for significant cuts to greenhouse gas emissions compared to other sectors, at no cost.

Buildings offer an easily accessible and highly cost-effective opportunity to reach energy targets. A green building is one that minimises energy use during design, construction, operation and demolition.

The need to reduce energy use during the operation of buildings is now commonly accepted around the world. Changing behaviour could result in a 50% reduction in energy use by 2050.

Such savings are strongly influenced by the quality of buildings. Passive buildings are ultra-low energy buildings in which the need for mechanical cooling, heating or ventilation can be eliminated.

Modular or prefabricated green buildings, designed and constructed in factories using precision technologies, can help achieve these standards. These buildings are higher quality and more sustainable than buildings constructed on-site through manual labour. They are potentially twice as efficient compared to on-site building.

However, despite support for modular houses, there are a number of hurdles in the way of a prefab revolution.

Karen Manley_Conversation2

High-Tech Factory, Shizuoka, Sekisui House Ltd. Karen Manley, Author provided.

How green can modular buildings be?

Factory production means modular green buildings are better sealed against draughts, which in conventional buildings can account for 15-25%of winter heat loss.

And factories also have better quality control systems, leading to improved insulation placement and better energy efficiency. Good insulation cuts energy bills by up to half compared to uninsulated buildings.

Because production in a factory setting is on-going, rather than based on individual on-site projects, there is more scope for R&D. This improves the performance of buildings, including making them more resilient to natural disasters.

For example, factory built houses in Japan have performed very wellduring earthquakes, with key manufacturers reporting that none of their houses were destroyed by the 1995 Hanshin Great Earthquake, as opposed to the destruction of many site-built houses.

Buildings constructed on site probably can’t achieve the same benefits as modular buildings. Case studies in the UK show savings of 10% to 15% in building costs and a 40% reduction in transport for factory compared to on-site production. Factories also don’t lose time due to bad weather and have better waste recycling systems.

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Sorting waste at Sekisui House Ltd Recycling Centre. Karen Manely – Author provided.

For instance, Sekisui House, a Japanese builder, has a system for all their construction sites where waste is sorted into 27 categories on-site and 80 categories in their recycling centre to get the best value from the resources.

On-site building is open to the weather. This prevents access to the precision technologies required to produce buildings to the highest environmental standards. These technologies include numerical controlled machinery, robotic assembly, building information models, rapid prototyping, assembly lines, test systems, fixing systems, lean construction and enterprise resource planning systems.

For example, numerical controlled machinery provides more precise machine cutting that can’t be matched by manual efforts. This, combined with modelling, fixing and testing systems helps ensure that factories produce more airtight buildings, compared to on-site production, reducing energy leakage.

Australia is behind the curve

Less than 5% of new detached residential buildings in Australia are modular green buildings.

In leading countries such as Sweden the rate is 84%.

In Japan, 15% of all their residential buildings are modular green buildings produced in the world’s most technologically advanced factories.

Globally, there is a trend toward increased market penetration of green modular buildings. Yet their adoption in the Australian building sector has been slower than expected.

However, we can still catch up. The latest evidence suggests that strengthening building codes and providing better enforcement is the most cost effective path towards more sustainable housing.

Australia doesn’t have a great record here. Our building codes could be better focused, stricter, and certainly our enforcement could be a lot better.

Building for the future

As the biggest polluter and a high energy user, the building sector urgently needs to reform for climate change mitigation.

Karen Manley_Conversation

High-Tech Factory, Shizuoka, Sekisui House Ltd. Karen Manley, Author provided.

There are serious legacy issues. Mistakes we made in the past endure throughout the life of buildings. Building decisions we make today can be very costly to reverse, and buildings last for decades! In Australia, a timber building is likely to last at least 58 years, and a brick building at least 88 years.

Currently, potential building owners are funnelled toward on-site construction processes, despite the clearly documented benefits of factory-based production. This is reflected in the low profile given to modular housing in the National Construction Code and a lack of aggressive and well enforced environmental standards. We clearly need better policy to support the modular green building industry.

Karen Manley, Associate Professor at Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Do wind vent holes in banners make a difference? We used a wind tunnel to find out

Do the holes in the banner carried by these Vietnam veterans during an Anzac Day parade in Canberra make any difference?

Do the holes in the banner carried by these Vietnam veterans during an Anzac Day parade in Canberra make any difference? AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Matthew Mason, The University of Queensland and Jonathan Roberts, Queensland University of Technology

The next time you see a banner hung across a street or from a bridge, or hoisted as part of a street march, protest or demonstration, take a closer look. You may see that the banner has holes or slits cut into it.

But why would someone cut holes into a perfectly good banner?

These are so-called “wind vents”, and for some reason people have been mutilating their banners with these holes in the belief that their presence will significantly reduce the wind loading on the banner.

But does a banner with holes or slits really have an easier time in the wind than an equivalent banner that is hole free?

History and legislation

It is not known when people started to cut holes into their banners. There is very little written about the practice, and much of the knowledge appears to come via word of mouth or has been transferred from other wind related domains.

What is obvious from the websites of the world’s sign and banner makers is that they are frustrated with having to cut holes into their lovingly-made creations.

Some banner makers simply refuse, and tell their customers that if they want holes, then they can cut them themselves.

The apparent importance of banner wind vents has led some local governments around the world to make them mandatory for banners installed in certain locations. No vent holes, no banner allowed!

The regulations of the Brisbane City Council, in Queensland, Australia, state that for banners to be installed on the city’s iconic Story Bridge, they “must be provided with wind vent holes” and that “wind holes (vents) need to be spaced at approx. 3m intervals”.

Brisbane City Council’s Story Bridge banner design guide indicating location of ‘wind vent holes’.
Brisbane City Council design guide

The small town of Springville, Utah, USA, states in its regulations that at least 20% of the area of the banner must be made up of holes. It suggests “half moon shaped vents 4-6 inches wide and facing down throughout the banner”.

Understanding the aerodynamics

To understand what, if anything, wind vents do for our banners, we need to visit the work of aerodynamics specialists.

In 1956, B. G. de Bray, an aerodynamics expert at the UK’s Royal Aircraft Establishment, performed a series of wind tunnel tests to show how flat plates with holes in them performed in a moving air stream. He was interested in how plates could be used for airbrakes on aircraft as they land.

His experiments showed that perforations (holes) make the air flow more stable but that there was “only a comparatively small reduction in drag coefficient”. He shows a graph recording the relationship between the area of the holes and the change in drag coefficient of a flat plate. The graph indicates that making 20% of a banner’s area holes will reduce the drag by around 5% in a wind of 150km/h.

These figures are taken from de Bray’s 1956 work on wind tunnel testing of flat plates with holes and how drag relates to hole area in a 150km/h wind. Note that CD designates the drag coefficient, which is a normalised way of representing force that accounts for plate size (or in our case the banner) and wind speed. Doing this allows the wind tunnel data to be scaled to full-size.

When we consider de Bray’s other finding – that holes do make the air flow more stable – we can look at a common example of this in action in round parachutes.

Billowing structures that fill with air on the windward side, such as round parachutes, become unstable when there are no holes in the structure. The air tends to spill almost randomly from the structure’s edge. This makes the structure flap around in the wind in a seemingly random manner.

This was discovered in the early days of parachute development. In the late 1700s, a number of parachute developers were killed due to accidents relating to their unstable and oscillating chutes.

In 1804, Frenchman Joseph Lelandes invented the apex vent, a hole in the top of the parachute. This appeared to solve the problem of stability but did not appear to reduce the drag, ideal for parachuting where you need the drag.

Since then there have been many studies showing the benefits of holes in round parachutes. One group even found during their experiments that vent holes in round parachutes slightly increase the drag on the chute while making it more stable.

Wind tunnel tests

Following in de Bray’s footsteps, we decided to turn to wind tunnel experiments to assess just how much impact those holes had on wind forces.

We conducted a series of simple experiments where we put scaled versions of banners in a wind tunnel and measured the wind forces. We did this for a range of wind speeds and number of vents (holes). We then measured how the forces changed from test to test.

We performed experiments where vents were rectangular holes cut in the fabric and others where the vents were rectangular holes cut on three sides and allowed to hinge at the top (flaps).

A test banner with 7% of its area made of holes in the wind tunnel.
Author supplied
As for above, but showing a banner with 7% porosity and hinged flaps.
Author supplied

Experimental wind speeds tested ranged from approximately 25km/h to 100km/h and the range of vent hole area to total banner area ratios (porosity) assessed was from zero (no holes in the banner) to approximately 20%, which coincides with the Springville regulations and makes a pretty holy banner.

A plot showing drag on the banner versus porosity of the banner for the 100km/h tests over the range of banner porosities. The vertical axis shows the drag coefficient (CD) ratio, which is the wind force measured on the porous banner divided by the wind force on the solid banner. A porosity of 0.1 is 10% holes/vents/flaps.
Author supplied

A value of 1 in the figure (above) would indicate that the vents have done nothing and a value of 0.9 would suggest there has been a 10% reduction in load.

It is clear that wind vents do reduce the wind load on a banner, but as de Bray showed, the reduction in load is relatively small until porosity becomes large.

The reduction in drag force is greater for holes and hinged flaps than found by de Bray (and others) for uniformly perforated plates or fabrics.

The wind speed makes a difference. At low wind speeds the presence of vents can actually increase the wind load on a banner, which in our test was found to be up to 5%.

In general though, force coefficients decreased as wind speeds increase. This was particularly the case for the banners with flaps, where these vents became more open as the wind speed increased.

So the type of vent makes a big difference. Banners with holes rather than hinged flaps experienced lower wind loads. Both of these vent types experience lower loads than on uniformly perforated plates, which perform similarly to porous mesh fabrics.

With these points in mind, we return to the Brisbane City Council’s regulations for placing banners on the Storey Bridge. It is now possible to calculate the effect of their prescribed wind vents.

If we assume that they would like holes, and the maximum size of a banner is 18m wide by 0.9m high, then our best guess estimate is a semi-circular hole radius of 25cm noting also that five wind holes are required. We calculate that at most, 3% of the banner will be holes.

Interpolating our figure this would give us a 2% reduction in wind load. A sign of 98% the area of the maximum would be 18m wide and 0.88m high and would only require you to trim 2cm off the bottom of the sign to create a sign of equivalent drag to the one with five holes in it! It hardly seems worth the effort.

The verdict

The science shows us that flat structures behave one way, and billowing air-filled structures behave a different way. It seems that our legislators have been confused and applied results from parachutes to flat banners.

If you have a banner tied in such a way that it will remain relatively flat in the wind, then it seems that the benefits of putting in vents are minimal unless you make your banner into Swiss cheese.

You are simply better off making a slightly small banner to achieve the same reduction in load.

The Conversation

Matthew Mason, Lecturer in Civil Engineering, The University of Queensland and Jonathan Roberts, Professor in Robotics, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia’s first robotic help in a hip replacement operation

The surgeon and the robotic arm will work together on a hip replacement.

The surgeon and the robotic arm will work together on a hip replacement. Stryker, Author provided

Ross Crawford, Queensland University of Technology; Anjali Jaiprakash, Queensland University of Technology, and Jonathan Roberts, Queensland University of Technology

The first robotically assisted hip replacement operation in Australia is due to be performed today on a patient in Brisbane.

A total hip replacement (THR) is one of the most successful operations that surgeons perform, with more than 43,000 carried out last year in Australia alone.

The robot technology to help in such operations has been used for some years in the US but has only recently reached Australia.

But if the operations are so popular and successful, why let a robot in on the surgery?

The hip opp

A hip replacement involves an incision to expose the hip joint and the placement of an acetabular component (the cup) and a femoral component (the stem). A head is then placed on the stem and a ball and socket joint is created that is the patient’s new hip.

A typical ball and socket artificial hip replacement.
Ross Crawford, Author provided

Though very successful, the operation can be quite challenging to perform in certain patients such as the very overweight and those with complex deformities due to childhood diseases or trauma. There is also a learning process for the surgeon in performing a hip replacement and it is hoped this can be shortened by using robotic technology.

Accurate positioning of the components of a hip replacement is important. Having the cup and stem in the correct position can decrease the chance of complications such as dislocation, where the head comes out of the cup. Making sure the joint stem is located in a way to ensure optimal leg length may also lead to improved function of the new hip.

Currently, surgeons rely on their experience and judgement to correctly place the components of a hip replacement. Many studies have shown that even experienced surgeons can have difficulty in reliably and accurately placing the cup in the correct orientation. They sometimes find placement of the stem challenging too.

This is where a robot can help.

The robot surgeon

Up until now, the Australian experience of robotic orthopaedic surgery has been limited to partial knee replacements. The first was carried out in April last year, and since then more than 280 of these procedures have been performed.

The first robotically assisted total hip replacement operation will take place today at Brisbane’s Holy Spirit Northside Hospital, and it’s likely such procedures will quickly become just as popular as the knee operations.

The Stryker Mako advanced robotic arm that helps with the surgery.
Stryker, Author provided

So what is different with a robotic total hip replacement and where does the robot help?

The MAKO robotic system is a carefully controlled robotic arm that aids surgeons in placement of the components of a total hip replacement. It makes the operation more accurate and safer for surgeons, regardless of their experience.

The main difference from a patient’s point of view is that a pre-operative CT scan is needed to plan the procedure. Traditionally, surgeon relied purely on an X-ray to plan a total hip replacement.

When performed by a robot, planning for the procedure is done by specialist engineers in collaboration with the surgeon. The engineer and surgeon work together to determine the optimal position for the components and they create a plan.

The plan places the cup in the correct orientation to match the patient’s anatomy and the stem is also sized to fit the patient’s femur. The aim is to accurately restore the patient’s hip anatomy, particularly leg length.

Once the surgery begins, the surgeon exposes the hip joint in the usual way. Trackers are placed on the pelvis and on the femur allowing the robot to register these bones.

The trackers are attached to the bones using small posts with a screw thread on the tip. A series of points on the patient’s pelvis and femur are then registered and the robot creates a 3D representation that matches the CT scan.

Once the robot understands the geometry, it is able to follow any movement of the patient by the signal transmitted by the trackers fixed to the bones.

A cutting tool called reamer – somewhat like a powered round cheese grater – is attached to the robot and is used to prepare the bone to accept the cup. The surgeon holds the reamer but the robot constrains it and will not let the surgeon remove bone beyond the planned amount.

This will prevent any accidental damage to the bone and make sure the reaming can only occur as planned. Human error is removed from the preparation.

After reaming is finished, the cup is grasped by the robot and the robot sets the correct positioning. The surgeon then hammers the cup into the correct position in the pelvis.

They are able to monitor the position of the implant on the computer screen as it is “seated”. The cup cannot be driven in too far, as the robot constrains where the cup can be placed, as with the reamer.

Next the surgeon places a broach in the femur to prepare a cavity for the femoral component (stem). The broach can be tracked by the robot to make sure it is placed in the correct orientation and the patient’s legs are at the planned length.

Once happy, the surgeon cements the stem into where the broach was positioned, places a head on the femur and puts the head into the cup.

Who’s in charge?

Though the robot is constraining the surgeon to execute the plan, the surgeon remains in charge at all times. The surgeon continues to carry all responsibility for the success of the operation and any complications.

This first step of robotically assisted total hip replacement is relatively easy. The robotic technology (robotics, navigation and haptics) being used is very mature.

But as we are seeing in many industries, the capability of robotics is expanding rapidly. It will not be long before the technology is advanced enough to take over far more of the operation from the human surgeon.

Then the big ethical questions will arise. Even now orthopaedic robots are being limited in what they can do because the step to autonomous surgery is currently a step too far.

Like driverless cars, the questions of liability and trust continue to be aired when discussing robotic-surgery or health care.

But also like driverless cars, robotic surgeons do not have to be perfect. They just have to be better than humans.

The Conversation

Ross Crawford, Professor of Orthopaedic Research, Queensland University of Technology; Anjali Jaiprakash, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Medical Robotics, Queensland University of Technology, and Jonathan Roberts, Professor in Robotics, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

New relaxed drone regulations will help the industry take off

CASA makes it easier for low risk flying of drones. Flickr/Richard Thorek, CC BY-NC-SA

Reece Clothier, RMIT University and Jonathan Roberts, Queensland University of Technology

The Australian drone industry is set for a shake up following the announcement of a long-awaited relaxation of regulations on their operation.

Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) says the amended regulations will come into effect in late September 2016, and with them comes the introduction of new categories of what are known as remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS).

The regulations define new low-risk commercial RPAS operations, which will allow operators of sub-2kg craft to fly without the need for an approval or licence.

A drone must be operated in daytime and within visual line of sight of the remote pilot to be classified as low risk. It must not be flown over populous areas and must be kept at least 30 metres from other people.

The drone cannot be flown greater than 130m above ground and it must not be flown within 5.5km of a controlled airport.

Commercial operators in this new category will have to register their operations with CASA on a yet-to-be live website.

Relaxed regulations will also apply to private owners of RPAS of up to 150kg. This is provided they only fly their drone over their private property and they do not operate their aircraft for direct commercial reward.

Why the change?

In 2002, CASA was the first in the world to regulate the operation of drones.

The regulations, contained in Part 101 of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulation (CASR 1998), were long considered ground breaking. Much of the success of the Australian unmanned aircraft industry is owed to the flexible approach outlined in the regulations.

In 2007, there were fewer than 25 certified drone operators in Australia. By March 30, 2016, this number had grown to 500, with most operating small multi-rotor RPAS.

But with this rapid growth came the increasing need for regulatory reform. CASA recognised that the regulations needed to keep pace with increasingly capable technology, and the changing operational needs of the sector.

It also realised that processing an ever increasing number of regulatory applications was not sustainable.

Welcome news

The new changes will significantly reshape the drone industry.

Operators already licensed by CASA are expected to face increased competition from the new sub-2kg RPAS operators. These new operators will be able to provide equivalent aerial photography and inspection services without the same regulatory overhead.

Similarly, there will be an increase in the number of end-users choosing to own and operate their own internal RPAS capability instead of contracting existing RPAS service providers. Examples include the use of small inspection drones on building sites and the use of drones by tactical police units to assist them in hostage situations.

But it is not all doom and gloom for the current licensed RPAS operators. The standard operating conditions applicable to the new low-risk categories are restrictive.

Larger and more reliable drones will still be needed to carry bulky and more expensive payloads such as laser scanners, and hyper-spectral and cinema-quality cameras. These drones will still need to be operated by licensed operators.

Approval is still required for first person view (FPV) outdoor flying operations, where the remote pilot flies by means of a camera mounted on board the drone.

Similarly, autonomous drones, which operate without any input from a pilot, also require CASA approval on a case-by-case basis.

A large drone that will still require licensed operators for commercial use.
Stefan Hrabar/CSIRO/UAV Challenge

Research and educational institutions, such as universities, are also expected to benefit from the new categories, provided they operate their aircraft over their own property and in accordance with all other operational restrictions.

Previously, these institutions were subject to the same licensing requirements as commercial operators.

Hobby users

The amended regulations do not address concerns posed by the rapidly growing number of hobby drone users.

Regulations applicable to hobby or recreational users are contained in CASR 1998 Part 101.G, which is the subject of a separate CASA regulatory reform project.

There is growing concern over the risks hobby users pose to other aircraft and to members of the public. Some of these hobby users are not aware of the potential danger their drone may pose.

There have been numerous near misses of small drones with passenger aircraft in recent years. As the rate of these incidents increases, there is real concern that a drone will eventually be ingested into an aircraft engine causing catastrophic damage – or worse, an airline crash.

Others are well aware of the dangers their drones may pose to the public but they are deliberately mischievous anyway.

Education remains the only effective tool, with CASA leading a campaign to educate hobby users on the safe operation of their aircraft and the regulations that apply to them.

Without doubt, the release of the amended regulations will mark a significant milestone in the history of the Australian drone industry. They will help to sustain the safe and viable growth of the sector.

But the devil may still lie in the detail, of course, with the accompanying manual of standards yet to be released by CASA. The manual will contain more detailed requirements including those for remote pilot licences, flights in controlled airspace, and flights beyond visual line of sight of the pilot.

CASA’s exact interpretation of “Aerial Work” and “Commercial Reward” also remain unclear.

The Conversation

Reece Clothier, Senior Lecturer, RMIT University and Jonathan Roberts, Professor in Robotics, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Can we replace politicians with robots?

 A robot for an MP – who’d vote for that? Shutterstock/Mombo

Jonathan Roberts, Queensland University of Technology and Frank Mols, The University of Queensland

If you had the opportunity to vote for a politician you totally trusted, who you were sure had no hidden agendas and who would truly represent the electorate’s views, you would, right?

What if that politician was a robot? Not a human with a robotic personality but a real artificially intelligent robot.

Futures like this have been the stuff of science fiction for decades. But can it be done? And, if so, should we pursue this?

Lost trust

Recent opinion polls show that trust in politicians has declined rapidly in Western societies and voters increasingly use elections to cast a protest vote.

This is not to say that people have lost interest in politics and policy-making. On the contrary, there is evidence of growing engagement in non-traditional politics, suggesting people remain politically engaged but have lost faith in traditional party politics.

More specifically, voters increasingly feel the established political parties are too similar and that politicians are preoccupied with point-scoring and politicking. Disgruntled voters typically feel the big parties are beholden to powerful vested interests, are in cahoots with big business or trade unions, and hence their vote will not make any difference.

Another symptom of changing political engagement (rather than disengagement) is the rise of populist parties with a radical anti-establishment agenda and growing interest in conspiracy theories, theories which confirm people’s hunch that the system is rigged.

The idea of self-serving politicians and civil-servants is not new. This cynical view has been popularised by television series such as the BBC’s Yes Minister and the more recent US series House of Cards (and the original BBC series).

We may have lost faith in traditional politics but what alternatives do we have? Can we replace politicians with something better?

Machine thinking

One alternative is to design policy-making systems in such a way that policy-makers are sheltered from undue outside influence. In so doing, so the argument goes, a space will be created within which objective scientific evidence, rather than vested interests, can inform policy-making.

At first glance this seems worth aspiring to. But what of the many policy issues over which political opinion remains deeply divided, such as climate change, same sex marriage or asylum policy?

Policy-making is and will remain inherently political and policies are at best evidence-informed rather than evidence-based. But can some issues be depoliticised and should we consider deploying robots to perform this task?

Those focusing on technological advances may be inclined to answer “yes”. After all, complex calculations that would have taken years to complete by hand can now be solved in seconds using the latest advances in information technology.

Such innovations have proven extremely valuable in certain policy areas. For example, urban planners examining the feasibility of new infrastructure projects now use powerful traffic modelling software to predict future traffic flows.

Those focusing on social and ethical aspects, on the other hand, will have reservations. Technological advances are of limited use in policy issues involving competing beliefs and value judgements.

A fitting example would be euthanasia legislation, which is inherently bound up religious beliefs and questions about self-determination. We may be inclined to dismiss the issue as exceptional, but this would be to overlook that most policy issues involve competing beliefs and value judgements, and from that perspective robot politicians are of little use.

Moral codes

A supercomputer may be able to make accurate predictions of numbers of road users on a proposed ring road. But what would this supercomputer do when faced with a moral dilemma?

Most people will agree that it is our ability to make value judgements that sets us apart from machines and makes us superior. But what if we could program agreed ethical standards into computers and have them take decisions on the basis of predefined normative guidelines and the consequences arising from these choices?

If that were possible, and some believe it is, could we replace our fallible politicians with infallible artificially intelligent robots after all?

The idea may sound far-fetched, but is it?

Robots may well become part of everyday life sooner than we think. For example, robots may soon be used to perform routine tasks in aged-care facilities, to keep elderly or disabled people company and some have suggested robots could be used in prostitution. Whatever opinion we may have about robot politicians, the groundwork for this is already being laid.

A recent paper showcased a system that automatically writes political speeches. Some of these speeches are believable and it would be hard for most of us to tell if a human or machine had written them.

Politicians already use human speech writers so it may only be a small step for them to start using a robot speech writer instead.

The same applies to policy-makers responsible for, say, urban planning or flood mitigation, who make use of sophisticated modelling software. We may soon be able to take out humans altogether and replace them with robots with the modelling software built into itself.

We could think up many more scenarios, but the underlying issue will remain the same: the robot would need to be programmed with an agreed set of ethical standards allowing it to make judgements on the basis of agreed morals.

The human input

So even if we had a parliament full of robots, we would still need an agency staffed by humans charged with defining the ethical standards to be programmed into the robots.

And who gets to decide on those ethical standards? Well we’d probably have to put that to the vote between various interested and competing parties.

This bring us full circle, back to the problem of how to prevent undue influence.

Advocates of deliberative democracy, who believe democracy should be more than the occasional stroll to a polling booth, will shudder at the prospect of robot politicians.

But free market advocates, who are more interested in lean government, austerity measures and cutting red-tape, may be more inclined to give it a go.

The latter appear to have gained the upper hand, so the next time you hear a commentator refer to a politician as being robotic, remember that maybe one day some of them really will be robots!

Frank Mols, Lecturer in Political Science, The University of Queensland and Jonathan Roberts, Professor in Robotics, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A digital beehive could warn beekeepers when their hives are under attack

Bee keeper inspecting a frame of honeycomb. Author provided.

Marcus Foth, Queensland University of Technology; Alethea Blackler, Queensland University of Technology, and Paul Cunningham, Queensland University of Technology

Honey bees are responsible for pollinating crops worth more than US$19 billion and for producing about US$385 million in honey a year in the United States. In Australia, honey bee production is a A$92-million industry.

But throughout the world, honey bees are disappearing at an alarming rate. Since 1990, more than 25% of the managed honey bee population in the US has disappeared.

Why is this happening? The decline has mainly been attributed to a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD). Although still poorly understood, it is thought to be caused by the combined effect of interrelated factors that weaken hive health.

These include shifting flowering seasons due to climate change, reduced floral diversity, use of pesticides, habitat loss, lack of genetic diversity, insect parasites and harmful microorganisms.

Bee hive design

The beehive itself plays a key role in increasing honey bee resilience. Curiously though, the Langstroth hive most common among commercial beekeepers today is almost completely unchanged since its invention in the late 1850s.

A typical Langstroth bee hive, a design not changed for many years.
Shutterstock/Geoffrey Kuchera

A Langstroth hive provides a plethora of design opportunities to greatly benefit both bees and beekeepers. Beekeepers regularly inspect their hives to check the health of the colony, the laying pattern of the queen, the quantity of honey and to detect pests and diseases.

The inspection process involves disassembling the hive into almost all its component parts, inspecting each one and then reassembling the colony and moving onto the next.

This is a stressful and destructive process for honey bees and can temporarily weaken the colony and attract pests. For example, Small Hive Beetle hunts down hives by smell and then lays its larvae in the honeycomb.

The tools for opening the hive and the hive components themselves can be responsible for infection from bacterial diseases such as American Foulbrood, which can quickly destroy a healthy hive.

Underpinning the Langstroth hive’s modular design and movable comb frames is bee space – the goldilocks zone of space that is not so small that bees gum it up with their own building material propolis, and not so large that they try to build bracing honeycomb structures in between. A Langstroth hive is so practical that its design has not changed in almost 160 years, until now.

The crowdfunded FlowHive drains honey from a comb without requiring its removal. The brood of the colony still needs to be examined and monitored in the conventional way using protective gear and a smoker.

We are experimenting with bee-centred design. These are hives designed to provide a more natural equilibrium between bees and beekeepers. With the rise of the urban hobby apiarist, armed with a handful of open-source technology tools, the physical design of the beehive itself is in the spotlight of the makers and tinkerers.

Digital hive plans made available free online are in a continual state of iteration as FabLabs and maker spaces around the world create new 3D printed prototypes.

The digital beehive

The focus of the maker movement is not limited to the physical design of the beehive, but is also increasingly introducing digital sensors.

With some early experiments in temperature and humidity monitoring in hives, a number of products and crowd funding campaigns have launched, offering beekeepers the ability to remotely monitor their hives on their smart phone.

These products offer hive weight readings so that beekeepers know when to harvest their honey, GPS locations for tracking stolen hives, even bee counters so that bee foraging patterns may be detected.

While these sensors have been used in other contexts, the ability to transmit and interpret datasets is new to beekeeping. This provides not just data but a suite of tools from which the health of a bee colony can be deduced.

While many such technology applications are still in their infancy, a vibrant community of artists, scientists and engineers are also designing systems that retrofit existing hives.

Professor Paulo de Souza, a CSIRO entomologist in Tasmania, is gluing tiny RFID chips to bees in a quest to track generational impacts of pesticide exposure and genetically modified pollen.

Anne Marie Maes, an artist in Brussels, is sampling sounds through hive embedded piezo-electric microphones. Her aim is to recognise hive health by identifying patterns in the audio datasets.

The EyesOnHives system uses cameras to optically track individual bee movements. Using an approach similar to image recognition systems, it develops day-to-day signatures of the bee activities from which changes in hive conditions can be detected early while remedy is still possible.

Odour sensing and disease detection

With digital sensors being introduced into the beehive, hive odours have yet to be investigated, despite advances in odour sensing technology and its application to identifying human disease, environmental toxicity and food contamination.

In our recent research, we are combining expertise in insect olfaction, analytical chemistry and environmental informatics to pioneer a new approach: odour sensing for early detection of honey bee disease.

We are trialling electronic nose technology to explore ways in which it can be used by beekeepers as citizen scientists. Odour sensing to monitor hive health provides an unprecedented opportunity to increase the resilience of our food system using sensor technology and data analytics.

The rapid decline of honey bees worldwide is one of the most significant losses of a single species humans have faced. By investigating the use of odour sensors for honey bee hive health, we want to enable beekeepers to capture real-time data for early diagnosis that can help prevent the catastrophic losses of honey bee populations in Australia and worldwide.


Research assistance provided by Dan Cook, industrial design student at QUT, who was awarded a Vacation Research Experience Scholarship to work on this research project.

The Conversation

Marcus Foth, Professor, Urban Informatics, Queensland University of Technology; Alethea Blackler, Associate Professor and Head of Discipline for Industrial Design, Queensland University of Technology, and Paul Cunningham, Senior Research Fellow, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: what is FPV drone racing?

Drone racing can be done indoors or out, as long as there are obstacles that make the course interesting. Porco 777

Jonathan Roberts, Queensland University of Technology

The new sport of drone racing sees small but very fast robots fly around a circuit littered with obstacles. Unlike motorsports we are familiar with, the course of a drone race can be three-dimensional, with obstacles they need to fly around, under, over and even through.

The pilots stay on the ground but they fly with a view as if they were sitting in the aircraft. This technique is known as first-person-view, or FPV, and you will often see the sport referred to as FPV drone racing.

system-guide/”>FPV, and you will often see the sport referred to as FPV drone racing.

Drone racing began as an underground activity. Early races took place in empty car parks, and parking garages are still a favourite venue for drone racers.

Forests are also a perfect venue for drone racing enthusiasts, possibly inspired by the speeder bike chase scene from the Star Wars movie Return of the Jedi.

An affordable sport

The secret of drone racing’s rapid development lies in the technology needed to participate. Nearly all of the required components are relatively cheap and quite accessible. This is the exact opposite of most motor sport.

The main elements of a drone racing set-up are the drone itself, an on-board video camera, a decent video transmitter, a pair of immersive video goggles and a set of remote controls. All of these components are now just one internet order away.

A cheap set-up could be assembled for a few hundred dollars. Unlike Formula 1 car racing, you can build a racer at home and enter yourself into a race competition. This is something for the masses to actually do, which is an exciting prospect for the armchair sports enthusiast.

Even a paper plane FPV drone is now available. You fold a paper plane, just like you did when you were a kid, and you then install the motors, autopilot and camera system. You use your smart phone in a box as your FPV goggles.

Setting up a homemade drone for the next round.
Stefan Hrabar, Author provided

Safety

The main reason drone racing is cheap is because there are no people on-board and hence the drones are very small. Some of them are tiny; they only need to be large enough to carry the video camera, battery and some electronics.

This also means that the sport is not overly hazardous to those in the immediate area. Even though the drones race up to speeds approaching 150km/h outdoors, indoors their speed is more limited due to the proximity of obstacles, and they typically weigh only hundreds of grams. Some of these drones fit into the palm of your hand.

The nature of the courses also means that the chance of impact with the humans controlling the drones or spectators is quite low. The courses are deliberately set up that way.

When flying outside, drone racers must operate according to their country’s specific airspace regulations, which differ among nations. Some are up-to-date and consider the use of drones, while others are more outdated and the use of drones is complex and sometimes even impossible.

The motivation for strict controls is to keep people not involved in the flying out of harm’s way and also reducing the risk that a drone could fly away and pose a serious hazard for a regular aircraft carrying people. All regulators are grappling with how drones will regulated as people get more into FPV racing.

When racing indoors, there are no air space regulations for drone racers to worry about. This is one of the reasons that racing around empty car parks, warehouses and office buildings is popular.

Chasing the money

The rapid rise of drone racing is already showing that this will be a big money sport. In 2015, Chad Nowak from Brisbane, Australia, was crowned thefirst world champion of drone racing.

His first prize was A$15,000 and he had only been drone racer for a year. He has now moved to the US to be closer to the centre of the big prize money drone racing scene. As the sport grows, it is inevitable that leagues will form, sponsorship will be attracted, and there will be regional and national champions.

In January 2016, an organisation called the Drone Racing League (DRL) announced that it had secured A$8 million to run an international FPV drone racing series.

Like modern Formula 1 racing, where the viewer at home can see a live video stream from the cars, DRL says that it will give viewers a customisable view from the drones. Other rival leagues and events are forming as interest grows.

And just like most existing motorsports, unfortunately, it is clear that drone racing is starting out with major gender inequality issues. The DRL has one female pilot out of the 17 listed.

An innovative drone racing group in the Gold Fields of Western Australia is trying to use the new sport to attract tourists to their region. Their videos from drones racing over spectacular desert-like landscapes are reminiscent of pod racing scene in Star Wars The Phantom Menace.

Drone racing is such a new activity that it is hard to predict if it will become a major sport to rival established individual racing sports. It may be quickly superseded by the next big thing in tech. Jet pack racing anyone?

The Conversation

Jonathan Roberts, Professor in Robotics, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

My robot Valentine: could you fall in love with a robot?

Can a robot really feel and express emotions such as love? Shutterstock/Charles Taylor

Kate Letheren, Queensland University of Technology and Jonathan Roberts, Queensland University of Technology

Imagine it’s Valentine’s Day and you’re sitting in a restaurant across the table from your significant other, about to start a romantic dinner.

As you gaze into each other’s eyes, you wonder how it can possibly be true that as well as not eating, your sweetheart does not – cannot – love you. Impossible, you think, as you squeeze its synthetic hand.

Could this be the future of Valentine’s Day for some? Recent opinion indicates that yes, we might just fall in love with our robot companions one day.

Already, robots are entering our homes at increasing rates with many households now owning a robot vacuum cleaner.

Robotic toys are becoming more affordable and are interacting with our children. Some robots are even helping rehabilitate special needs children or teach refugee children the language of their new home.

Robot romance

Will these appliances and toys continue to develop into something more sophisticated and more human-like, to the point where we might start to see them as possible romantic partners?

While some may compare this to objectophilia (falling in love with objects), we must ask whether this can truly be the case when the object is a robot that appears and acts like a human.

It is already the norm to love and welcome our pets as family members. This shows us that some varieties of love needn’t be a purely human, nor even a sexual phenomenon. There is even evidence that some pets such as dogs experience very similar emotions to humans, including grief when their owner dies.

Surveys in Japan over the past few years have shown a decline in young people either in a relationship or even wanting to enter a relationship. In 2015, for instance, it was reported that 74% of Japanese in their 20s were not in a relationship, and 40% of this age group were not looking for one. Academics in Japan are considering that young people are turning to digital substitutes for relationships, for example falling in love with Anime and Manga characters.

What is love?

If we are to develop robots that can mirror our feelings and express their digital love for us, we will first need to define love.

Pointing to a set of common markers that define love is difficult, whether it be human-to-human or human-to-technology. The answer to “what is love?” is something that humans have been seeking for centuries, but a start suggests it is related to strong attachment, kindness and common understanding.

We already have the immensely popular Pepper, a robot designed to read and respond to emotions and described as a “social companion for humans”.

How close are we to feeling for a robot what we might feel for a human? Recent studies show that we feel a similar amount of empathy for robot pain as we do human pain.

We also prefer our robots to be relatable by showing their “imperfect” side through boredom or over-excitement.

According to researchers in the US, when we anthropomorphise something – that is, see it as having human characteristics – we start to think of it as worthy of moral care and consideration. We also see it as more responsible for its actions – a freethinking and feeling entity.

There are certainly benefits for those who anthropomorphise the world around them. The same US researchers found that those who are lonely may use anthropomorphism as a way to seek social connection.

Robots are already being programmed to learn our patterns and preferences, hence making them more agreeable to us. So perhaps it will not be long before we are gazing into the eyes of a robot Valentine.

Society’s acceptance

Human-robot relationships could be challenging for society to accept, and there may be repercussions. It would not be the first time in history that people have fallen in love in a way that society at the time deemed “inappropriate”.

The advent of robot Valentines may also have a harmful effect on human relationships. Initially, there is likely to be a heavy stigma attached to robot relationships, perhaps leading to discrimination, or even exclusion from some aspects of society (in some cases, the isolation may even be self-imposed).

Friends and family may react negatively, to say nothing of human husbands or wives who discover their human partner is cheating on them with a robot.

Robot love in return

One question that needs to be answered is whether robots should be programmed to have consciousness and real emotions so they can truly love us back?

When love is returned by a robot.
Shutterstock/KEG

Experts such as the British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking have warned against such complete artificial intelligence, noting that robots may evolve autonomously and supersede humanity.

Even if evolution were not an issue, allowing robots to experience pain or emotions raises moral questions for the well-being of robots as well as humans.

So if “real” emotions are out of the question, is it moral to program robots with simulated emotional intelligence? This might have either positive or negative consequences for the mental health of the human partner. Would the simulated social support compensate for knowing that none of the experience was real or requited?

Importantly, digital-love may be the catalyst for the granting of human rights to robots. Such rights would fundamentally alter the world we live in – for better or for worse.

But would any of this really matter to you and your robot Valentine, or would love indeed conquer all?

The Conversation

Kate Letheren, Postdoctoral research fellow, Queensland University of Technology and Jonathan Roberts, Professor in Robotics, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Robots in health care could lead to a doctorless hospital

Would you trust your child’s health to a robot surgeon? Shutterstock/magicinfoto

Anjali Jaiprakash, Queensland University of Technology; Jonathan Roberts, Queensland University of Technology, and Ross Crawford, Queensland University of Technology

Imagine your child requires a life-saving operation. You enter the hospital and are confronted with a stark choice.

Do you take the traditional path with human medical staff, including doctors and nurses, where long-term trials have shown a 90% chance that they will save your child’s life?

Or do you choose the robotic track, in the factory-like wing of the hospital, tended to by technical specialists and an array of robots, but where similar long-term trials have shown that your child has a 95% chance of survival?

Most rational people would opt for the course of action that is more likely to save their child. But are we really ready to let machines take over from a human in delivering patient care?

Of course, machines will not always get it right. But like autopilots in aircraft, and the driverless cars that are just around the corner, medical robots do not need to be perfect, they just have to be better than humans.

So how long before robots are shown to perform better than humans at surgery and other patient care? It may be sooner, or it may be later, but it will happen one day.

But what does this mean for our hospitals? Are the new hospitals being built now ready for a robotic future? Are we planning for large-scale role changes for the humans in our future robotic factory-like hospitals?

Our future hospitals

Hospitals globally have been slow to adopt robotics and artificial intelligence into patient care, although both have been widely used and tested in other industries.

Medicine has traditionally been slow to change, as safety is at its core. Financial pressures will inevitably force industry and governments to recognise that when robots can do something better and for the same price as humans, the robot way will be the only way.

What some hospitals have done in the past 10 years is recognise the potential to be more factory-like, and hence more efficient. The term “focused factories” has been used to describe some of these new hospitals that specialise in a few key procedures and that organise the workflow in a more streamlined and industrial way.

They have even tried “lean processing” methods borrowed from the car manufacturing industry. One idea is to free up the humans in hospitals so that they can carry out more complex cases.

Some people are nervous about turning hospitals into factories. There are fears that “lean” means cutting money and hence employment. But if the motivation for going lean is to do more with the same, then it is likely that employment will change rather than reduce.

Medicine has long been segmented into many specialised fields but the doctor has been expected to travel with the patient through the full treatment pathway.

A surgeon, for example, is expected to be compassionate, and good at many tasks, such as diagnosing, interpreting tests, such as X-rays and MRIs, performing a procedure and post-operative care.

As in numerous other industries, new technology will be one of the drivers that will change this traditional method of delivery. We can see that one day, each of the stages of care through the hospital could be largely achieved by a computer, machine or robot.

Some senior doctors are already seeing a change and they are worried about the de-humanising of medicine but this is a change for the better.

Safety first but some AI already here

Our future robot-factory hospital example is the end game, but many of its components already exist. We are simply waiting for them to be tested enough to satisfy us all that they can be used safely.

There are programs to make diagnoses based on a series of questions, and algorithms inform many treatments used now by doctors.

Surgeons are already using robots in the operating theatre to assist with surgery. Currently, the surgeon remains in control with the machine being more of a slave than a master. As the machines improve, it will be possible for a trained technician to oversee the surgery and ultimately for the robot to be fully in charge.

Hospitals will be very different places in 20 years. Beds will be able to move autonomously transporting patients from the emergency room to the operating theatre, via X-ray if needed.

Triage will be done with the assistance of an AI device. Many decisions on treatment will be made with the assistance of, or by, intelligent machines.

Your medical information, including medications, will be read from a chip under your skin or in your phone. No more waiting for medical records or chasing information when an unconscious patient presents to the emergency room.

Robots will be able to dispense medication safely and rehabilitation will be robotically assisted. Only our imaginations can limit how health care will be delivered.

Who is responsible when things go wrong?

The hospital of the future may not require many doctors, but the numbers employed are unlikely to change at first.

Doctors in the near future are going to need many different skills than the doctors of today. An understanding of technology will be imperative. They will need to learn programming and computer skills well before the start of medical school. Programming will become the fourth literacy along with reading, writing (which may vanish) and arithmetic.

But who will people sue if something goes wrong? This is, sadly, one of the first questions many people ask.

Robots will be performing tasks and many of the diagnoses will be made by a machine, but at least in the near future there will be a human involved in the decision-making process.

Insurance costs and litigation will hopefully reduce as machines perform procedures more precisely and with fewer complications. But who do you sue if your medical treatment goes tragically wrong and no human has touched you? That’s a question that still needs to be answered.

So too is the question of whether people will really trust a machine to make a diagnosis, give out tablets or do an operation?

Perhaps we have to accept that humans are far from perfect and mistakes are inevitable in health care, just as they are when we put humans behind the wheel of a car. So if driverless cars are going to reduce traffic accidents and congestion then maybe doctorless hospitals will one day save more lives and reduce the cost of health care?

The Conversation

Anjali Jaiprakash, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Medical Robotics, Queensland University of Technology; Jonathan Roberts, Professor in Robotics, Queensland University of Technology, and Ross Crawford, Professor of Orthopaedic Research, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Nine business bets for our emerging digital economy

Faster. Image sourced from Shutterstock.com

Marek Kowalkiewicz, Queensland University of Technology

Every year seems like an accelerated version of the previous one. Every year we think we have reached the peak and then following year comes, paling everything before it.

Will 2016 be the same? Every available sign suggests so. We might be worried about a potential new bubble burst or slowdown on stock markets, but this will not stop new ideas, business models, or new opportunities from emerging.

Here are my nine bets – what will change in 2016 in business, technology and social.

Doing the same thing over and over again will never take you to new places

In 2016, we will see more and more organisations focus on revenue resilience and look for new markets and opportunities. This will require oppositional thinking – looking for radically different ways of running business, for instance: paying your customers rather than charging them. Environmental sensing teams will be formed at many organisations with a goal of becoming aware and understanding the potential impact of new trends on their organisations.

Resolution for 2016: set up a team to do “environmental sensing”.

The gig economy train is not slowing down

Newly emerging business models will only get stronger in 2016. The gig economy will continue and will go well beyond house rentals and transportation. We will see at least one new global player following the Peers Inc. model – providing means for individuals to offer their products and services in an easier way. And the next dominant player will likely come from Asia, a market that has remained largely untapped.

Resolution for 2016: consider becoming a platform for the gig economy.

Delight your customers by predicting and meeting their needs ahead of time

We will see a rise in proactive organisations, that is, organisations that are able to offer products and services the moment the need for them arises often even before the customer realises there is a need.

We will see the first commercial examples of predictive delivery (“your product is at the doorstep, would you like to buy it, or shall we take it back?”). And after the easy ones are demonstrated and customers get used to it, other – often unexpected – players will follow: among others we will see the first truly proactive governments. All of it thanks to progress in digital identity.

Resolution for 2016: redefine your products and services, become a truly proactive organisation.

Welcome your digital personal assistant. One that really assists, not just pretends to

Digital identity will enable not only new organisational behaviour, but also facilitate evolution of other technologies. Digital personal assistants will continue to evolve. They will not only be able to tell you where the film you want to see is playing on the weekend or remind you about a doctor’s appointment, they will be able to pay your bills, switch electricity providers or truly support you in your work, like a real assistant (human-agent augmentation).

Resolution for 2016: get more things done by delegating to your digital PA.

If the world around you moves faster than you do, the end is near

Incumbents in asset-intensive industries will be challenged by technology advances even more than in previous years. The Janicki Omniprocessor will enable entire communities to go off the sewage and water grids. High capacity batteries in garages and self-driving cars will enable individuals to trade electricity outside of the grid. Telecommunication providers will see more and more pressure from meta providers. The cord-cutting movement affecting cable TV will spread to other industries.

Resolution for 2016: if you are an incumbent in your industry, focus on environmental sensing to avoid surprises.

Digital capital is an enabler of social good

Existing technologies will mature and be used in critical situations. Government agencies, emergency responders and disaster management will access Periscope and Facebook Mentions live streaming to gather intelligence. We will retain control of our digital selves and at the same time be able to “share our digital capital” whenever it may be helpful. This digital mindset will also be applied by organisations, looking for options to digitise idle assets using new technologies.

Resolution for 2016: have a close look at your assets. Can they deliver new value in the digital economy?

Hardware will become the new app

More and more individuals will find it easy to join the “maker culture”. Platforms like Arduino or Raspberry Pi will allow more people to rapidly prototype hardware solutions. We will see examples of Internet of Things applications that are finally compelling and useful to individuals. Environments like Apple’s HomeKit will only add to the momentum. On the other hand, platforms like Kickstarter will pave the way to efficient prototype-to-product processes.

Resolution for 2016: join and support a makerspace.

Build a community and a product (or service) will come

We will see more businesses starting in an unorthodox way: by first creating a community and only after that realising what product or service they could offer. Digital communities will become the new unfair advantage in every industry.

Resolution for 2016: identify and invest in your communities.

Digital intelligence is the new black

Society will continue to learn how to deal with digital economy trends. We will move from digital literacy through digital behaviour to digital elegance. And we will see growing interest in cybersecurity, despite numerous governments trying to discourage citizens from using data encryption tools.

Resolution for 2016: invest in digital literacy and development.

The Conversation

Marek Kowalkiewicz, Professor and PwC Chair in Digital Economy, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.