September 13, 2016      

Despite its remoteness from much of the world, New Zealand wants to increase its connections to global commerce beyond tourism and agriculture. New Zealand robotics research is one way in which the country is striving to become a significant technology player.

For centuries, New Zealand’s main trading partner was the U.K. This arrangement abruptly ceased in 1973 when the U.K. joined the European Union. The loss of preferential treatment prompted New Zealand to embark on a search for new markets. As a result, Japan, Australia, and the U.S. now purchase half of New Zealand’s total exports, primarily wool, mutton, lamb, beef, cheese, fish, and chemicals.

With the U.K. now in the process of leaving the E.U., direct trade ties between New Zealand and the U.K. may be reestablished. However, the country isn’t likely to retreat from its continuing efforts to establish global commerce connections, partly through robotics.

A deep education and research base

Although New Zealand has never been widely recognized as a hotbed of robotics innovation, this situation is rapidly changing. With a population slightly under 4.5 million, the country benefits from a wealth of research-focused educational institutions, most of which offer undergraduate and graduate programs in robotics and related fields.

The University of Auckland (UoA), the nation’s largest and most highly ranked university, has positioned itself as a hub for much of the nation’s robot research.

Over the past several years, UoA’s Center for Automation and Robotic Engineering Science has become internationally recognized for its experience in a variety of robotics applications, including healthcare, agriculture, human-robot social interactions and an array of support technologies.

Massey University (MU), located in the North Island town of Palmerston North, is also active in robotics education and research.

New Zealand robotics researchers are developing a full-color robotic tattoo artist.

Researchers are developing a robot that can make tattoos in directly from photos. Source: Massey University

MU faculty and students are currently developing a collection of land, air, and sea robots that can collaborate to complete tasks more effectively. The project’s goal is a family of three, possibly spherical, robots that communicate with and control one another.

Yet another MU project aims to create a fully automated system capable of producing tattoos in full color directly from photographic images. Potential uses include a range of medical tattooing applications and cosmetic repair.

New Zealand robotics get local inspiration

The seismically active natural environment has also inspired New Zealand robotics research. Major earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 devastated the South Island city of Christchurch.

Victoria University of Wellington’s Mechatronics Research Group has focused a significant amount of its efforts on search and rescue robots designed to save people buried under rubble.

According to the school, these robots combine mechanical, electronic, and software engineering with sensors, physics, mathematics, and design.

The Mechatronics Research Group has designed sensors to capture the dimensions of every object within a standard camera lens field of view (wide-angle through telephoto) quickly, precisely, and with a high degree of configurability.

In combination with control systems and effective instrumentation, these systems enable mobile robots to be operated in complex and changing environments. They could also be potentially used in forensics, such as to measure debris from fatal car crashes, and even the entertainment industry.

More on Global Robotics R&D:

New Zealand robotics research includes mobile systems and navigation.

CAIR has developed a six-legged mobile robot.

Musical mechatronics

On a lighter note, a Mechatronics Research Group research team is developing a series of robots that can play musical instruments or even transform themselves into unique types of musical devices.

Instruments currently under development range from drums to ringing water-filled wine glasses to a fully functional robotic bass guitar, dubbed the MechBass. The group notes that the robots are not being designed to replace human musicians, but to add new levels of musical depth and imagination.

Another New Zealand robotics institution, the Auckland University of Technology (AUT), operates the Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research (CAIR). CAIR Director Wai Yeap leads the research and development branch of the university’s School of Computer and Mathematical Sciences.

CAIR investigates a wide range of robotics technologies, including mobile and industrial robots, control and navigation technologies, and human-machine interaction. Using technology developed by Yeap, AUT researchers recently created a robot that can find its way home using a cognitive map rather than a conventional metric map.

In my next article, we’ll look at developments in New Zealand farming and healthcare automation.