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It’s Time for Philadelphia to Embrace its Robotics Industry, Here’s Why

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(Gloucestercitynews.net)(June 19, 2019)--The Hubble Space Telescope is a pretty incredible piece of technology. Even as NASA gears up for the launch of its successor - the James Webb Space Telescope - Hubble’s name is still synonymous with some of the most unique and awe-inspiring views of our universe.  Give all the hubbub around Hubble, you would think that the gifting of a telescope described simply as “Better-Than-Hubble Class” to NASA would be a newsworthy occasion.

And yet, when the United States Department of Defense handed not one, but two of these telescopes to NASA, the nation’s forever cash-strapped space agency, there wasn’t much fanfare. For one thing, NASA lacked a launch vehicle to get the telescopes into orbit at the time. Now, seven years later, it looks like we’ve got our first glance at where these will be used. They will form part of a satellite that comprises six better-than-Hubble telescopes working together and is due to launch in...2035.

But while NASA’s budget is always tight and famously turbulent, the DoD has no such issues. For the American military-industrial complex, the cup doeth runneth over. Well, it actually runs right up to the allocated budget and never a penny under. Those two telescopes, crumbs from the DoD table that were gifted to NASA, were more interesting than they initially appeared. It turns out they had already been in space.

Budget Blues

For NASA, every bit of spending is carefully scrutinized and challenged. NASA is constantly struggling against misapprehensions about what the agency does - it’s more climate observation than space exploration - and a budget decided by the whims of the US Congress. In principle, the DoD also has these issues, but for them, the money never stops and a lot of it is invested in tech.

The two telescopes gifted to NASA were almost certainly being used as spy satellites. This means two things. First, that the US DoD has satellites that are better-than-Hubble being used as spy satellites. Second, those two telescopes are ‘going spare’. Presumably, this indicates an upgrade of the satellite to which these telescopes had been attached.

Exosuits

The US defense and intelligence communities, on the other hand, are famously well-funded. DARPA played a pivotal role in the development of the internet. GPS satellites are owned and operated by the US military and the fruits of these massive research budgets are sometimes hugely beneficial. Research into ICBMs was one of the biggest motivating factors in the space race. So, it is perhaps unsurprising that they are gifting NASA satellites.

As the US military embraces more technology, it increasingly needs private businesses to develop and maintain that tech. Philadelphia was one of the first cities in the US to introduce medical exosuits to help physical therapy patients in the city. In fact, Philly hosts a robot expo every year and the city is home to several robotics businesses. The city has the potential to be pivotal to the robotics industry going forward.

Exosuits are a technology that has a number of potential implications. Yes, it definitely has military applications that are both worrying and unpredictable. On the other hand, very similar exosuits could make rescue work in the wake of natural and man-made disasters safer for rescuers.

Are They Real?

Exosuits already exist and a number of companies have shown off proofs-of-concept and prototypes of their exosuits that are capable of performing basic functions. These exosuits are evolving alongside the autonomous robots that many people hope will be able to aid during rescue missions. Boston Dynamics are probably the best-known of all the businesses that are operating in this area today. Their autonomous robots have very natural movements and are far more advanced than anything we’ve seen before.

However, while exosuits are no doubt really quite awesome and anything that takes us closer to Iron Man should be applauded, they are not quite the magic bullet of technology that many people had hoped for. While exosuits certainly have a role to play in rescue work, enabling rescuers to lift heavy rubble after earthquakes and to use infrared and acoustic imaging to locate buried survivors, for example, these suits only exist as prototypes currently.

Superhero?

The question that most people want to know with any exosuit is whether it will make the wearer stronger, faster or generally “better”. We think of exosuits as being enhancements, machines that will give us abilities that we would not otherwise have. But if you ask anyone who has a masters in computer engineering, such as an MS Engineering-ECE-Advanced Mobility. they will be able to tell you that there are always trade-offs in design.

Some studies have shown that certain exosuits can significantly reduce the strain on particular muscles when lifting heavy weights, sometimes reducing the load by more than half. However, they can double the load that other muscles are placed under as a result. This has serious implications for the goal of creating universal exosuits that can be used by people who are undertaking a variety of tasks.

A World of Potential

The potential applications of exosuits mean that both the private sector and the military-industrial complex have an interest in seeing the tech come to fruition. Rescuers working in a multitude of contexts, from earthquakes and landslides to warzones and floods, can potentially benefit from the use of exosuits. If there are businesses able to continue to innovate and design exosuits suitable for more specialized tasks, we will likely see their use expand.

As machine learning, electric and autonomous vehicles, and a variety of other technologies begin to mature, the possibilities for exosuits are already beginning to open up before the tech has even fully arrived. We mentioned Boston Dynamics earlier; they have shown off a number of robots that are modelled on animals. The movements of these robots reflect the movements found in nature, which have only been possible to replicate for a relatively short space of time.

The military is no doubt also considering the potential that more advanced AI will allow for. The Pentagon has signed some pretty significant cloud-computing contracts over the last few years; these are almost certainly related to machine learning. Machine learning is the tool that will be used to train autonomous units, should they ever come to fruition.

Philadelphia is a city of innovation and we have businesses here that have experience with all of the above. We are already home to several robotics companies, located in and around the city, and the time has never been better to capitalize on this unique expertise and infrastructure.

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