How to create robots that amplify people’s capabilities

25 Jun 2024

Image: Dr Philip Long

ATU’s Dr Philip Long is developing robots to help fix the labour shortage in Ireland’s growing manufacturing sector.

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Dr Philip Long has worked in many institutions around the world to develop advanced robotic technologies.

He completed a PhD in robotics at École Centrale de Nantes in France, before working at IRT Jules Verne, a French technological institute that translates academic research ideas into industry-ready solutions. He then undertook postdoctoral research at Northeastern University in Boston, working with NASA’s humanoid robot to help in nuclear decommissioning tasks. He spent three years at the Irish Manufacturing Research (IMR) centre with a focus on enabling Irish manufacturing companies exploit the latest robotic technology.

Since 2022, he has been a lecturer in the robotics and automation group at Atlantic Technological University (ATU), where his research, supported by Science Foundation Ireland, is focused on advanced robotics.

Tell us about your current research.

The current focus of my research is on human-robot collaboration. Specifically, we’re creating tools that allow humans to quickly and safely teach robots by ‘showing’ them the task rather than explicitly programming them. Much of my previous research had focused on increasing a robot’s capabilities by using advanced control algorithms and state-of-the-art sensors.

However, I believe that the most critical component of any robotic or automated system is the interaction with humans during programming, commissioning and the execution phase. By optimising this interaction, we can use the robots as a sort of amplifier of a person’s capabilities and it’s my hope that in doing so we can create robotics that can take on a lot of the dull and repetitive tasks that people have to do every day.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

A lot of the applications for my research are in manufacturing which is a really important sector in Ireland and strongly linked to many of the programmes here at ATU. Like most sectors nowadays there’s a labour shortage and there’s also increased competition from a lot of low-cost labour countries, while increasingly there’s a demand for bespoke products.

Human-centred robotics could alleviate a lot of issues by combining the flexibility of humans with the repeatability of robot. The ideal scenario would be instead of having one person doing a repetitive manual task, that person is now supervising and leading a team of robots to do the same tasks.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I was lucky enough to receive a scholarship to complete EMARO (European Master on Advanced Robotics), spending one year in Italy and the second year in France. This high quality and state-of-the-art programme gave me a lot of exposure to different research platforms and companies who were using robotics. Upon completion of this motivating programme, I was offered an opportunity to do a PhD in robotic research in France and this was the start of my research career.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

The biggest challenge as a researcher is time pressure. There’s a lot of work to do outside the actual research, such as financial management and team management, reporting and university administration. Moreover, much of the work is deadline-driven, for instance, submitting papers and conference submissions, and of course writing grant applications.

Do you think public engagement with science and data has changed in recent years?

I think it’s probably very hard to say yes or no definitively; there’s certainly more misinformation being spread in recent years especially as more people are relying on social media for information.  It’s hard for anyone to know what information is trustworthy and what’s been fabricated. Nevertheless, I think overall engagement between scientists and the public has increased since the pandemic which is a positive interaction going forward.

How do you encourage engagement with your own work?

I’m lucky to be able to interact with a lot of companies in my research, both through industry-academic collaborations and stakeholder engagement, and I find people are quite open and very supportive of research. ATU is also very active in STEM outreach activities such as the VEX Robotics competition and works very closely with the Teen-Turn charity that aims to provide STEM career role models and hands-on experience to teens from underserved areas.

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