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Ideas, Progress & the Future

Robots for the real world

Robots have taken over David Hinwood’s life – and he couldn’t be happier.

“I’m constantly thinking of how robots can be employed to solve problems and address issues in the real world,” says the PhD student, who graduated from the University of Canberra with a Bachelor of Computer Software Engineering (Honours) in 2015.

“Plus, they’re just always fun to play with and program – strange and interesting!”

Having robots on the brain – specifically, their vast potential to help humans in the everyday – means that David’s PhD is focused squarely on human-robot interaction.

Specifically, many of his waking hours are devoted to developing a robotic hand that can assist in the sorting of discarded textile waste – success will mean changing the face of the recycled textile industry.

When the ABC’s 2017 War on Waste documentary shone a light on the fact that 6,000kg of textiles and fashion waste was dumped in landfill every 10 minutes in Australia, there was a collective national gasp of horror.

Globally, we are now looking at an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste generated each year (according to a BBC article published in 2020). Projections see that rising to over 134 million tonnes by 2030.

Among other considerations, these numbers have brought the crucial role of the textile recycling industry more sharply to the fore of consciousness.

In order to be recycled, textiles like polyester and cotton must be broken down into component fibres, which can then be used to make new materials.

The first step though, is to sort all these items into different material types.

Because this is an expensive, labour-intensive process, it significantly impacts just how effectively the industry can work, says David.

“If that sorting could be done by a robot, it would really help to address this huge amount of textile waste being generated on a global scale,” he says.

One of the main challenges lies in building a robotic hand which can properly grasp all the different textiles it encounters – a human hand has a wider and much more flexible range of movement than a robotic one.

For David, it was a challenge accepted.

“We began by analysing the dynamics of movement, of the movements a human hand would make when picking up and holding a textile,” David says. “We had to consider different kinds of grasping motions, and how the contact between a hand, textile and a surface like a table, worked in the whole movement.”

From there, David and his team conceptualised a mechanical design strategy that encapsulates the range of movements of a human hand, with the thumb movement the most significant aspect.

“The robotic hand will have greater comparative mobility and a kind of sense of proprioception, so that however it approaches a textile – from different heights and angles – it can pick it up,” he says.

A textile-sorting robot also needs to be able to distinguish among textiles. David’s prototype robotic hand will be able to tell cashmere from cotton once a sensor is embedded.

Powered by four motors, the prototype hand is still being refined. “We had a problem with overheating with the previous design, but that has been addressed – now we are working on streamlining the design for the best possible result,” David says.

It is evident that robotics’ potential for solving human problems – from the everyday to the complex – is what holds David in thrall.

Growing up, he didn’t find classroom learning terribly appealing – the draw was in the doing. “Theory always had to make sense in an applied, practical way,” he says.

After finishing his bachelor’s degree, David worked for an IT company for about a year. Then, the siren song of robotics lured him back to UC, to work alongside Professor of Affective Computing Dr Roland Goecke.

“Roland encouraged me to do a year-long honours course working on computer vision for robots,” he says.

Post-honours, David started working with Dr Damith Herath, Associate Professor in Robotics and Art, and has contributed to various projects, including human-robot artistic collaborations.

David’s singular focus and insightful approach will continue to seek out the practical applications for robotics, the ways in which technology can enhance human lives and address human problems.

“I believe in a slow integration of automation in the world,” he says. This allows a mindful, meaningful approach and can help allay many of the fears people sometimes have when it comes to technology.

“It’s important to build a level of intuition and reactivity into robots, in order to make them practical in an everyday context – but we’re still many years away from that,” he says. Still, there’s a gleam in his eye.

Challenge accepted, indeed.

Words by Suzanne Lazaroo, photo by John Masiello.

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