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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Rise of the machines

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Is it surprising that the mention of robotics and automation is often met with concern and unease, even fear. An entire brand of cinema has been built around unrelenting, murderous cyborgs.

But it isn’t a fear of machines developing conscious thought and overthrowing their masters. Feel reassured that your smart TV is probably not plotting against you.

It’s a fear of being replaced – the debate about driverless Tube trains is a case in point. Robots don’t take holidays or try and negotiate their contracts. In an industry with an infamous shortage of human skills, machines represent an alternative solution.

Assisting humans

On 9 October, RSSB and RRUKA will set out the brief for a competition that will explore how robotic and automated technology systems can be applied more extensively within train maintenance to assist human technicians. It will look at how labour intensive jobs that currently risk long-term injury could be done by a machine or how automation could remove the risk of fatigue or complacency.

The key word is assist. Putting the ethical debate to one side, the technology isn’t advanced enough to handle many complex tasks alone, without help from humans. Instead they are being designed to enhance what humans already do rather than replace. In fact, some research suggests that greater automation actually creates more jobs than it takes.

Says Geoff Pegman, managing director of robotics consultancy RU Robots, ‘In general, this doesn’t actually cut down on the manpower although it does allow you to do more jobs with the same manpower, so it actually speeds up the job somewhat.’

Look on track and around stations and you’ll see robots are already heavily employed in the rail industry. Tasks like welding, painting, cleaning and inspection are often automated. The TBMs that constructed Crossrail’s tunnels and the high output track plant vehicles are both modern day examples of rail robots.

They are improving the way things are done on the railway. They are responsible for significant time savings and, in some cases, they remove risk entirely from tasks traditionally fraught with hazards. Drones, for example, that can carry out inspection tasks at height while the human operator remains safely on the ground, are seeing increased usage on railways.

Ethical debate

RSSB said the scheme would also consider the ethical and policy issues that greater automation would no doubt create. ’It will look at how the transition to robotics and autonomous systems can be carried out as smooth as possible,’ RSSB has said.

We’re getting closer to having working environments where humans and robots work closely together, believes Geoff. He said, ‘There is an area where there’s still discussion going on with the safety people which is that of robots and humans working intimately together.

‘We are moving away from the old position where we used to think the only safe robot was one in a cage.’


What does the future have in store? Could we see gangs of human-like androids out repairing the network or bionic ticket inspectors? Geoff believes the reality isn’t quite what science fiction would have us believe.

‘To be quite honest, the humanoid shape is, one, very expensive to put together; two, with current technology not that reliable; and three, not really appropriate for a lot of these tasks,’ says Geoff.

‘A robot vacuum cleaner is not a humanoid pushing a standard vacuum cleaner; it’s a little device that just runs around on the floor.’

An information day will be held on 9 October between 10.30 am and 3.30 pm at RSSB’s London offices. Visit the RRUKA website for more information.

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