Technology

Robotics, automation taking root on Central Coast

Healthcare, agriculture, education leading the way

Robotics, automation taking root on...

SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Technology is rapidly changing how we live, work and learn here on the Central Coast and all indications point to that trend continuing.

At their workshop next to Atascadero High School, Team 973 The Greybots is celebrating their second World Team Robotics Championship they recently won in Houston, Texas.

"We created a robot with both an effective gear mechanism and an effective shooter that set us up to rank high at competitions and win", says team member Leila Silver.

Team 973 had just six weeks to conceptualize, design and build their award-winning Bloodhound Robot.

"We take chunks of metal and we make it do amazing things, like win a world championship", says Team 973 member Bryce Nelson, "what we're learning here and what we're seeing in the world, pretty much the application for robots is endless."

Students in the Cal Poly Mechanical Engineering Department's Robotics Program have designs of their own in what has become a fast-growing industry.

"They are becoming more and more intelligent", says Cal Poly Professor Saeed Niku, "we give them the intelligence, they don't really learn that on their own, they don't create that intelligence, but we can have processes where they actually learn behavior."

"Its applications in general surgery has pretty much exploded", says general surgeon Dr. Brian Tuai who has performed a record 500 robotic surgeries at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard.

"It allows us to perform the operation in a safer manner, more precise manner", Dr. Tuai says, "people talk about you have to have the hand of a surgeon, I think you may have to change that to you have to have the hand of a robot, there's really no tremors at all, it gets rid of any kind of tremor that's in a surgeon's hand."

Dr. Tuai says the robot has dramatically altered surgical procedures including gall bladder and hernia operations.

"I think anecdotally we see that, from experience, patients recoveries are significantly quicker and better", Dr. Tuai says.

Mechanization has been part of Central Coast agriculture for decades but with a growing shortage of agricultural workers, due in large part to a lack of federal immigration reform, and more stringent regulations, robotics and automation are quickly becoming a viable option for local growers and farmers trying to stay in business.

"I think it has to be", says Kevin Merrill with Mesa Vineyards and the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau, "when we're seeing labor rates going up, we're paying 12, 14,15 dollars an hour, they're talking about limiting the number of hours you can work out in the field, something has to give."

Merrill is the seventh-generation in his family to work in agriculture.

"Unfortunately new folks coming along, kids in high school and going into college, they're not attracted to come out here and work in the fields, they don't want to, its a hard job", Merrill says, "so somewhere we have to replace those bodies and we're lucky in the wine grape industry that we're able to do that mechanically."

Those who are profiting from the transition to automation say they are creating jobs just as the robots they make take jobs away.

"The problem with robots is they also do replace human workers in many situations", says Cal Poly Professor Niku, "so we always have to think about that in the back of our minds, what do the robots do to other people, the workers."

"It still relies on the surgeon's expertise and experience, it is not going to do everything by itself, it doesn't do anything by itself", says Dr. Brian Tuai, "it is completely under control of the surgeon during the operation."

In the meantime, the future is now and very bright for members of Team 973 The Greybots.

"That's kind of for our generation because what we see here, we're learning more and more about robots", says Team 973 member Bryce Nelson, "we need to kind of find that balance between jobs that robots can do more efficiently and also having jobs for the American people."


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