The five most important robotics trends of 2011 enable volume manufacturing and aim at further integration of robotics with machine vision and automated systems. Some of the trends outlined below discuss very targeted applications, from bomb sniffing to baggage handling, but the developments in each are relevant to other, sometimes very different, types of applications. These developments concern both the design of robots themselves and the systems in which they work. (Separately, take a look at our Slideshow: Humanoid Robots Get Real.)
One of the most significant trends in robotics is the integration of multiple technologies
that will help speed up and automate the factory.
1) Integration. A key trend is the integration of multiple technologies to speed up and automate the factory. Computing Advances Permit New Integration Answers looks at how vision systems, robotics, and 3D laser scanning are being used in a wider range of applications as prices come down and performance goes up. One example is a vision system that verifies box size and the placement of labels on cases coming off a packaging line. Ten years ago, the system would have required cameras and processors costing more than $100,000, but today it can be built using a single camera for around $30,000.
2) Bomb-sniffing robots. Integration is also a major theme in military robots that sniff out bombs. These sophisticated robots integrate sensors, cameras, processors, and various feedback devices. Though they offer a great deal of autonomy and multiple capabilities, their growing complexity is increasing their weight, size, and cost. A new modular design platform, described in Simplifying the Complex in High-Risk Duty Robots, departs from onboard processors and other devices and substitutes direct user control. The robotís path is determined via images transmitted by its wide-angle infrared camera. These and other improvements have reduced costs to the point where 10 robots can be purchased for the cost of one previous model.
What jumps out at me is the bifurcation taking place in the field. On the one hand, we have incremental advances in industrial robots (pick and place etc.), where they're being butressed by technologies like improved machine vision. OTOH, in the consumer sphere, we're seeing an explosion of experimentation. In this regard, see our slideshow, Humanoid Robots Get Real.
I've noticed the same division. Industrial robots, including surgical ones, seem to be following one "evolutionary" path, while consumer-oriented robots are developing in a different direction. What I'm wondering is whether these paths will join or cross over in the future. For example, will functions and features of the consumer robots and the motion replication robots merge in military or medical applications?
Great recap of major milestones. I would think, to your point, that there has to be some crossover eventually of robotics advances on the automation side with the useability advancements led by consumer developments. On the useability/human interface front, I just read earlier this week about a robot the South Koreans developed that looks like ET, but is designed to function as a prison guard. There's something disconcerting about a cute little mechanical guy cruising the corridors keeping order behind bars.
I would not expect them to. Industrial robots have no need for human "personable" characteristics (looks, voice). It's a good description of evolution in fact. The design of robots for two different environments causes them to take on different characteristics.
The crossover I had in mind was not making industrial robots cuter or more human-looking--and I agree, Beth, a cute-looking ET-like prison guard sounds like a very scary idea.
What I do think possible is that some of the movement emulation work described in #5 could be used to influence how consumer robots move, making them even more human, and could also be used in surgical robots (larger than the one described in this article), which require extraordinary precision (if it's not already). At the same time, some work like this (motion emulation) may have already been done in surgical robots which might then translate back insto consumer robots.
Ann, I think there is a small amount of crossover starting to happen. One example: The VGo robot, from VGo Communications, which plays a mildly human role but does not have any human attributes. VGo Communications said that they deliberately used a non-human form, so it "wouldn't be intimidating."
Nice trend piece, Ann. I was little surprised to see luggage tracking on the list. It makes sense simply because of the complexity. I'd love to see how automatic luggage tracking is improving the process of keeping travelers moving parallel to their bags.
Thanks, Rob. Right now, we may all have to go to the Amsterdam airport if we want our luggage tracked correctly! Kidding aside, I, too, was surprised, in fact dumfounded, that such an enormous system works at all, regardless of it's underpinnings. And I was even more surprised that it's done with robotics. Part of the fun in investigating this area is that the technology is much more advanced than I realized. I don't think we're quite yet to the point of a War with the Machines (Terminator? Frank Herbert? Dan Simmons' AI net?), but progress in robotics is certainly proceeding apace.
I'd love to see how the robots pull luggage. Since luggage comes is so many shapes it seem the robot would have to be very flexible. There there's the question of whether the robot might damage the luggage. Also, I would imagine the robot would need to identify the bags. Perhaps they use RFID so that line-of-sight is not a problem.
You´re right. There´s quite a bunch of technologies involved (SW algorithms for online "palletizing", robot controls, vision technology, handling technology, HMI, ...) to have a robot "playing 3D-tetris" in such a complex environment
There definitely is a marketing impediment to consumer robot uptake, along the lines of "What can these things actually do?" With the Roomba, it's not clear that this can vacuum your floors better than a normal vacuum. With Honda's Asimo, it's a curiousity. With the Japanese humanoid robots, well, the less said the better. I think it's going to take a robotics industry Steve Jobs to "create" a need for these things. Maybe Heather Knight is that person.
Chuck, I've been tracking industrial robots, not consumer or office models. But I'd bet there are more of them out there, if the commercials and ads are any indication. I do know that home robots started out pretty pricey, and have been an early adopter phenomenon (read: expensive).
Rob, those are good questions and I'd like to know the same things myself.
Easier than going to Amsterdam: go to youtube and search for "Grenzebach Baggage Handling" to see the baggage robot at work.
Also, if you happen to have a stopover in Amsterdam, you can catch a glimpse at the robots (as the new baggage hall has a window front towards the public side of the airport - the technology does not have to be hidden in the basement ;-)).
Finally, any seriously interested party can get in touch with email@example.com, and we can arrange for a site visit.
I was involve with ASEA Robotics way back in the late 70's. Their primary focus was getting auto manufacturers up and running with them. Their biggest problem was that the robots demanded far less variation between parts being assembled, which got them involved with advancing vision technology to compensate for some variation. It's amazing how this industry has expanded and progressed over the years.
The canonical example of robots run amok (that sounds like a title for a Star Trek episode) was what happened at GM under Roger Smith when they were first implemented. Of course, that's a period in the U.S. auto industry that everyone would rather forget (paging Chevy Vega). As you say, jhankwitz, things have thankfully progressed a great deal. The interesting development now is that we have solid tech progress simultaneously on TWO robotics fronts: industrial, which is relatively mature, and the newer consumer oriented robotics, like Roomba and the Japanese attempts to create humanoid-looking machines (to which I say, ick).
It's interesting that you post Integration as the number one issue. I just read an article in another trade magazine (I don't remember which one) that was talking about this very issue. The ongoing integration efforts include a change to programming so it more closely resembles PLC programming and is therefore easier for a wider variety of engineers to setup.
vimalkumarp, thanks for the feedback. Also, thanks for the info a while ago on the da Vinci surgical robot. It has a surprising number of potential apps. For example, NASA is using a modified one in a program that's studying how robots can refuel and service space satellites, remotely controlled from Earth:
Ann, Excellent story. The only other additional trend in robotics I have seen is the continued penetration of the Delta-style robot into application areas such as high speed assembly, palletizing, robot loaders and material handling robots. Both speed and more creative material handling and tooling is making the Delta configuration a good choice for enhancing performance and productivity.
Thanks for the info, Al. Can you tell us some more about the Delta-style robot? This appears to be a particular spider-like architecture, right? The name makes me wonder if it started out in military apps. Why is this one becoming so popular? How does it compare with other architectures?
Ann, Delta robots have been emerging because of their ability to do high speed pick and place applications (less mass in the arms), increased flexibility and sophisticated multi-axis wrists that enable quick orientation of products in a small area. The development of the six axis Delta robot has helped introduce Delta style robots into high speed assembly where they were never capable enough because they only had four axes. These are applications that used to be handled using SCARA robots, which are as fast as Delta robots but again only have four axes or on a slower scale with regular six axis articulated arms. A significant drawback is that Delta systems are designed to handle lighter payloads where an articulated arm can handle much heavier products.
Thanks for the summary, Al. So it's not just the structure but the mass differential that makes this architecture different. Sounds like they are not designed for picking up and moving heavier objects.
Yes, that's true. But higher speeds and flexibility are the key ingredients and the reason why Delta style robots are moving into new applications. And in some configurations that go beyond 4 axes, I believe that there are payload limitations.
So their main advantage sounds like speed and dexterity in handling smaller, lighter objects. I noticed that earlier you mentioned "more creative material handling and tooling" wrt Deltas. What exactly did you mean? Please tell us more!
In specific types of machines such as high speed assembly, palletizing, robot loaders and material handling robots, the creativity is using the Delta configuration in conjunction with software tools to solve specific applications -- sometimes with limited programming required. One example is ABB's RobotStudio Palletizing PowerPac, which allows users to configure, simulate and program ABB robots and grippers for palletizing solutions, in one step, with little or no robot programming experience required. What used to take days now takes minutes. Another example is singulation systems which are able to increase the efficiency of Delta robots in picking and placing food items such as bagels or English muffins by placing them is a single file line. That simplifies locating the product during high speed operation. Robots can then pick up one or two products per pick, and place them into a subsequent manufacturing system such as a flow wrapper or a carton loader.
Thanks for all the great info, Al. I like the idea of limited programming, which is a trend in machine vision and it looks like maybe in robotics, too. It sounds like not only have robots had to adapt to factory conditions, but factory conditions may also have had to adapt to robots to help them be more efficient: I refer to the placing of items in a single line. Or did I misunderstand you?
Ann, The development of applications programming packages in specific areas such as palletizing is an example of how robot makers are simplifying the software required for integrated systems. The user doesn't need to implement the robotics programming themselves. With the singulation system, it is more of a packaged solution where the machine builder is providing a flexible turnkey solutions that can easily be adapted to a specific requirement. Less costly than a fully custom subsystem.
Thanks for that observation about simplified programming and the development of programs for specialized apps. ABB has been promoting that idea, at least one one or two of their recent announcements. This parallels a similar trend in other aspects of automation, including machine vision.