Putting robots on the net

JAMES Trevelyan describes the development of an industrial robot capable of being operated via the Internet as something “developed from a crazy idea in the 1990s that is now taken for granted”.

The project, which started in Perth in 1994, was up and running in less than a year. In the years since the technology has been used by about half a million people.

Professor Trevelyan believes this technology has enormous potential in industrial applications, allowing major industrial sites such as power stations and refineries to be controlled from remote desktop locations.

Professor Trevelyan is a recipient of the Engelberger Award, the most prestigious international award for research and development in the field of robotics.

Hence, it is fitting that he has been nominated by his peers in WA as one of the State’s top research engineers.

An associate professor in the department of mechanical and materials engineering, Professor Trevelyan has been teaching and researching at the University of Western Australia since 1975.

During the 1980s, Professor Trevelyan’s main focus was a project to develop robotic technology for automated sheep shearing.

With a budget of up to $1 million per annum, it was the single largest research project undertaken at the university at the time.

The project brought together a range of disciplines, including mechanical design of the shearing robots and sheep restraints, development of electronic sensing devices and control system hardware and writing of software for controlling the robots and associated equipment.

About 250,000 lines of software were written for the project.

The project reached technical milestones but has not been successfully commercialised.

Over the past decade, Professor Trevelyan has focused on the development of robotic equipment for detecting land mines.

He has helped to develop a low-cost and simple technology for use by de-mining teams, which is currently being applied in Afghanistan and other countries.

Professor Trevelyan’s work on land mines has recently led him on to a new research field, focused on the migration of engineers and its impact on the development of engineering skills in Pakistan and Australia.

He said the cost of reconstruction in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq had been “hopelessly underestimated”.

The reality was that providing basic services, including a reliable electricity supply or water supplies, in these countries could be more expensive than in Western countries.

He said equipment supplied to developing countries often was not used properly because there was a shortage of people with appropriate skills.

In addition, people from developing countries who study engineering and other fields in Western countries often were unable to fully utilise their newly acquired skills when they returned home.

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