THE ENGINEERING PROFESSOR, 47, TALKS ABOUT JUDGING ROBOT WARS, DRIVERLESS CARS AND 3D PRINTING ON THE MOON. BY
What are your favourite fictional robots from film and TV?
The robots from the 1980s Smash adverts and Metal Mickey. I also like the robot from the film Bicentennial Man, which is based on an Isaac Asimov book. It’s about drawing the line between what a robot is and what a human is.
What were the most impressive robots you saw on Robot Wars?
Matilda, one of the house robots – she had spikes all over her. And Pulsar, one of the contestants’ robots. It was a vertical spinner that went very fast and made quite a frightening noise.
What innovations are you most excited about in the world of robotics?
AI in medical advances. AI can read more medical papers in a day than a human could in a lifetime. A researcher might write a paper in Japan about a particular idea about cancer. A researcher in the UK might not read Japanese and might duplicate that work or do something similar. If you have a robot that has read both papers and can combine them and say, ‘These five papers are very similar and this is the hole in our knowledge’, that might provide the breakthrough we need.
Self-driving cars. But there will need to be areas where there are only selfdriving cars, areas that combine selfdriving with human-driven cars will be a long way off.
What was the last thing you printed using your 3D printer?
I have an Ultimaker 2, which costs around £1,500, and an Ender 2, which costs £100. For what I’m doing, making small prototypes or cases for electronics, they’re of equal quality. I made something for the Engineering Edge podcast. Someone had invented the navibelt, which is a belt with a compass in with a vibrating motor. Blind people use it to navigate in straight lines. Because of Covid I couldn’t meet the person who made it to try it out, so I made a baseball cap with a vibrating motor, compass and some electronics in it. I 3D-printed the case to hold the battery. So now I have a baseball cap that vibrates when I face north.
How does 3D printing relate to space exploration?
When you’re in a spaceship and you’ve forgotten something, you have to wait
for the next spaceship to bring it to you. If you’re on the moon it could take three days to get there. If you can make your own things in space you don’t have to rely on having an umbilical cord back to Earth. There are plastic 3D printers on the International Space Station already and they’re looking at recycling material so they can use something, break it down and use it again. They’re looking at metal 3D printers so they can make their own tools and also 3D-printing synthetic skin to repair injuries and 3D-printing moon dust to make roads and buildings on the moon.
What’s been your most disappointing tech purchase?
I like the idea of VR but I got the Oculus Quest and I got seasick. It’s something to do with what your body thinks it’s doing and what your brain thinks it’s doing, and when those don’t align you feel sick.
What retro tech should make a comeback?
One of my friends has made a humansize Big Trak, which was a 1970s tractor-type toy. Now my friend has made a life-size one and I’ve driven around in it. A lot of retro tech has never gone away, like Sodastreams and lava lamps, and they’re still going strong. I’d also like to bring back handwritten letters – a bit of personal contact when everything else is digital is delightful.
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