Yes, the Robots Are Coming for Our Jobs, but Just the Boring Ones

April 17, 2016
Robot boats developed at Florida Atlantic University could do unwanted jobs such as inspecting bridges.

Which of America's bridges are getting ready to collapse? Ask the robot boats.

More than 600,000 bridges in the U.S. are due for inspection. Traditionally, divers are sent out to visually examine the bridges' underwater structures. The work is time-consuming, expensive, and tedious, and can be dangerous.

Karl von Ellenrieder and his team at Florida Atlantic University’s Dania Beach campus are working on a fleet of intelligent, autonomous boats that could replace many of those divers.

“There are a number of civilian applications where deploying a team of small unmanned surface vehicles operating under the guidance of human supervisors can significantly reduce costs, improve safety, and increase operational efficiencies for marine missions. Significant advances have been made in the area of distributed robotics, where a team of robots carries out a complex task. Our project will build on this progress.” -- Karl von Ellenrieder, associate director of the SeaTech Institute for Ocean Systems Engineering at FAU

Using underwater cameras, the boats patrol the underwater structures of the bridges without any human supervision. If all is well, they continue on their programmed route. If damage is detected, they cluster around the area, making sure it’s well documented for the managers overseeing the boats from land. It is only at this point that human divers would need to be dispatched.

It's a symbiotic relationship. We will rely on robots to do the basic surveying, but analyzing that information and making repairs will still be best performed by human beings. 

In the near future, at least, robots won't be replacements. They’ll be teammates.