The New Zealand robotics industry is small but has a strong educational and research base, as well as creative and practical applications. A particular area of interest, given the country’s commercial history, is technologies for New Zealand farming. Another is healthcare, particularly for the elderly.
For example, the University of Aukland’s Multipurpose Orchard Robots project is designed to deliver pollination and harvesting services with autonomous mobile robots.
Conducted in a partnership with Tauranga-based RoboticsPlus Ltd., the program addresses New Zealand farming concerns, including labor shortages, rising costs, and a lack of quality yields. Yields can be harmed, for instance, by Colony Collapse Disorder, which affects bee pollination, reducing fruit size.
The university (UoA) and company are also taking a precision approach to horticulture that encourages environmental sustainability through enhanced land practices.
Robots aid in elder care and placing needles
Healthbots is UoA’s signature robot research initiative. It is a joint research project between UoA and South Korea’s Electronic and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI).
Healthbots aims to improve healthcare for older people through the development of cutting-edge robotic technology. Approximately 22 researchers are working on various aspects of the Healthbots platform.
Team members have already developed integrated components and software for monitoring health status and detecting possible falls. The robotic systems are also intended to render personal assistance by doing things such as reminding users to take medication.
Field trials were recently carried out to determine the system’s acceptability and effectiveness. The technology is currently undergoing additional field trials within realistic end-user environments.
Another UoA team is working with Massey University researchers on a robotic system to guide flexible bevel-tip needles through human tissue. The technology could help enable minimally invasive surgery.
In addition, the two universities are working together to develop a series of exoskeletons to help with the rehabilitation of stroke victims and other physical rehabilitation activities.
The road to commercialization
Developing promising New Zealand farming and healthcare robotics is one thing; transforming them into commercial products is something entirely different. Fortunately, Kiwi research groups have access to a variety of organizations that can help academic labs and business innovators obtain funding and support.
Wharf42, for instance, is an organization established in 2012 to help early-stage New Zealand tech companies, including robotics startups, connect with Silicon Valley’s extensive innovation ecosystem.
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Meanwhile, the New Zealand government directly supports promising robotics projects through Callaghan Innovation. The agency is named in honor of Sir Paul Callaghan, an award-winning physicist specializing in nanotechnology and magnetic resonance.
“Robotics and sensing technologies are important technology areas for Callaghan Innovation, and we have started to initiate greater networking and knowledge-sharing platforms in the New Zealand industry to boost its development,” said Andrew Dawson, national network manager sensing technologies at Callaghan.
Late last year, Callaghan Innovation announced its participation in a pair of multi-institutional robotics initiatives. Both projects will see New Zealand research teams work with Japanese counterparts to improve the care of the elderly through robotics and other human assistive devices.
The other project, led by UoA researchers and their colleagues at the University of Canterbury, will focus on the design and scoping requirements for a lightweight robotic arm.
The Kiwi academic researchers will work in partnership with Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Ritsumeikan University, and Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR).
“We believe these collaborations are great opportunities for the New Zealand robotics research community to boost its capabilities, grow its international networks and secure its place as a global contender,” Dawson said. “Robotics, automation and sensing technologies are game-changing technologies, and New Zealand has some excellent skills in this area.”