It’s the limited life span of batteries that keeps robots from being more widely available
Every robot has its limit.
For the famous Roomba vacuum, it’s two to three hours. For the several thousand robots deployed in Iraq, about the same. For the warehouse robots sorting our sneaker orders, eight hours. And the Energizer Bunny? Forget about it — a few minutes, tops.
Perhaps more than any other factor, the life span of batteries has limited the infiltration of robotics into daily life. As computer processing and sensors have become cheaper and more powerful by the year, batteries, woefully inefficient and slow to recharge, have slogged behind, leaving engineers to dream of a day when they’ll have the juice to give life to their boldest creations.
And so roboticists have watched the huge increase in investment into battery technology this year, driven by the new administration in Washington and the push for electric cars, with much interest. This month alone, the Energy Department announced $2.4 billion in battery-related funding.
While the majority of this funding will manifest first in the garage, it will likely allow robotics to push into entirely new, mobile realms, according to Henrik Christensen, the director of the Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
“We are going to piggyback on whatever they’re going to do,” he said. “We’re never going to be big enough to drive the market alone.
“There is no doubt that new development in robot technology is very much going to benefit from battery technology,” he added.
Indeed, for engineers designing robots that operate not tethered to electrical outlets, the field is in a bit of a rut, said Dennis Hong, director of the Robotics and Mechanisms Lab at Virginia Tech.
“We’re currently at a design threshold right now,” Hong said. “We can’t add more batteries, then it becomes heavier. But if it’s lighter, [the robot] lasts only 10 minutes.”
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