Robotics researchers at University Jaume I in Spain have developed a prototype robot that can retrieve books from library shelves while patrons are present. The robot can navigate the aisles of bookshelves, locate a particular shelf, and then scan for the correct book. Oddly enough, the trickiest part of designing the robot was getting it to remove the book from the shelf.
The robot is a mobile manipulator, which means that it is a vehicle with three wheels, explained Professor Angel del Pobil. It has an arm with seven joints, two fingers which form a gripper, and two micro cameras on its wrist. Four sensors built into its gripper sense the force it is applying.
When it receives a request for a book, its voice recognition software matches the title with the book's classification code in the database. It can then search the database to identify which bookshelf stack to go to. Because the database will only give an approximate location, the robot will navigate its way to the bookshelf, using its infrared and laser guidance system, and scan books within a twelve-foot (four-meter) radius.
"It can read the labels and the position of the book, using its image processing and optical character recognition software," the professor said. Once the book is located, it has to grasp it and take it off the bookshelf, which is not a simple as it might seem. For this, the team had to develop special fingertips like a nails, with one nail longer than the other. "For me that was the hardest part. All the other things were current state of the art technology," said Professor Pobil.
The robots obviously will never replace skilled librarians. Instead, such devices could relieve the humans of the repetitive tasks of simply retrieving books and delivering them to patrons. In fact, someday a person in the UK could go online and request a book in a US library at 3 o'clock in the morning. A robot in the US library could fetch the book and, as directed by the Web user, turn to the correct pages and scan the text and images. The pages could then be delivered electronically to the requestor in England and the book returned to its proper position on the shelf within minutes.
You will not see these robots any time soon. Professor Pobil said that it was a "real possibility" that, in about five years' time, teams of robots could realistically perform searching and fetching tasks. I suspect they will not appear in genealogy libraries until some years after that.