Third ICEDIG Round Table meeting at NHM, London.

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The third ICEDIG Round Table meeting investigated how robotics could decrease processing time and costs, as well as supporting on-demand remote digitisation. The focus was on physical robotics and automated warehousing, not on software ‘robots’ or automated processes such as Optical Character Recognition. The use of Robotics and warehousing systems covers all stages of the retrieval and digitisation of objects; from preparation to the transport of the object to the digitisation space, the digitisation process itself, the transport back to the collection storage and all actions in between needed to complete the digitisation process. The following elements were discussed in more detail:

  • Research and curatorial needs - benefits and risks of offsite warehousing, including possibilities for technology to improve the balance of benefits and risks
  • Which types of collections and storage may be best suited to robotic/automated handling?
  • The interactions between digitisation and automated retrieval and handling, including baseline data required, and digitisation on demand Physical robotics and automated warehousing are rapidly evolving technologies with emerging but not well-developed uses for collections.

At present, cost will often outweigh benefits, but this depends on each proposal and is likely to change over time. Key areas of promise appear to be in display of natural science collections, and perhaps handling storage media. Work packages across ICEDIG and the related EU projects are producing complementary information covering:

  • Common standards, protocols and definitions for digitisation. • Increased data about the use and value of collections, including differences in the physical use of collections before and after digitisation – when does it increase demand for the physical objects vs when does it reduce/replace demand?
  • Software automation for digitisation and beyond, such as automated extraction of label data.

While large-scale adoption of robotics and automated warehousing is unlikely in natural science collections at present, it is likely that pilots in particular areas will be key to understanding future potential, whether public-facing; related to particular types such as molecular collections; or related to major storage initiatives.

It will be important to support and share such pilots so that consortium partners are aware of how robotics may be applicable to the challenges they face.

Two aspects that have remained unexplored during this Round Table meeting (The use of different techniques and how to engage more successfully with industry) will be addressed in detail a follow up RT meeting.

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