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R&D in robotics with potential to automate handling of biological collections

van Walsum, Myriam; Wijers, Agnes; Hardy, Helen; Livermore, Laurence

This report investigates the current state of physical (mechanical) robotics, automated warehousing approaches and assistive technologies in relation to the storage, handling and digitisation of natural history collections.

While ‘robots’ may sound futuristic, there are many existing examples of automation in the natural history and cultural heritage sectors, and this is growing rapidly. While purely software-based automation is outside the scope of this paper, hardware in use includes everything from barcodes and conveyor belts for digisation; to imaging technologies that need not always be supervised; robots that handle multiple vials for molecular and genetic work; and use of robots in display / exhibition contexts e.g. for 3D printing. While automated storage and retrieval have not yet been applied in natural history collections (to the best of our knowledge), several case studies of automation from e-commerce and the library sector are explored in this study, as well as examples of robotic arms in the heritage sector.

Robots and other automated systems are very good at repetitive tasks, and are developing rapidly to be able to handle more complex object types, at a lower cost. High volume, high variety of objects, and considerations such as fragility are not unique to the natural history sector - they apply for example to major retail operations - however natural history collections do offer some of the more extreme examples of these challenges, and in particular are not replaceable in the way many other objects can be. Business cases for automation in our sector also need to take into account that our processing times are often not critical in the way they can be for commercial operations, although they are becoming more so, particularly in digisation and as our resources continue to be limited - digisation on demand is likely to come with expectations about response time, for example.

Besides automation of object handling and imaging, warehousing automation can improve retrieval times from storage, space efficiency and climate control. However, implementation of automated warehousing solutions would require significant adaptations of existing storage space. This option may be of greater interest when new storage spaces are being built, and there may be the opportunity to move to more standardised storage units that can more readily be handled automatically.

At this time, a fully automated solution from storage to imaging and back to storage is not realistic for the complex context of natural history collections. By developing independent components (including storage & retrieval, transport, object picking, and imaging) which can be connected in the future, progress can already be made towards an end-to-end solution.

The natural history sector will need to work with suppliers and subject matter experts, including innovative smaller companies, because they have the required expertise to develop and integrate components. These suppliers will need to be provided with clear requirements and information if they are to understand our requirements, perhaps through shared research and development approaches and piloting. 

DiSSCo, and its Centers of Excellence, could play a further role in developing the expertise to beer communicate with SMEs. Also, DiSSCo can lead a concentrated effort for research and development in this field, to make sure that the various pilot projects are aligned.

Institutions holding natural history collections are likely to find many potential uses for automation, each with their own specific business case that will need to be developed - in this context, it is particularly important to consider the desired outcomes, including e.g. the benefits to humans of automating more repetitive aspects of their work.

  • Tausch R., Schmedt H., Santos P., Schröner M., Fellner D.W. (2016) 3DHOG for Geometric Similarity Measurement and Retrieval on Digital Cultural Heritage Archives. In: Pietro G., Gallo L., Howle R., Jain L. (eds) Intelligent Interactive Multimedia Systems and Services 2016. Smart Innovation, Systems and Technologies, vol 55. Springer, Cham

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