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Robotics Make a Move Toward Autonomous Service

Robotics Make a Move Toward Autonomous Service

With costs coming down for sensor-based technologies, vision and tactile feedback robotic systems are becoming increasingly more intelligent, people-aware, and are converging on a new paradigm and set of robotic applications.

This new direction is focused around three advances: proficiency without extensive software coding at the outset of an implementation, the ability for robots to work side-by-side with humans, and concepts like cloud computing that have the potential to help create more sophisticated learning machines.

Some developments are still futuristic, but already more and more robots are finding their way into warehousing, order fulfillment, health care applications, and may find a place in the future as "autonomous service robots" in automotive assembly plants.

Learning Trend

"We conducted a survey within the packaging industry, and the results came back very strongly that users of robotic automation are just tired of programming," says Rush LaSelle, vice president of sales and marketing for Adept Technology Inc. "It's probably the number one dissatisfaction in implementing robotics. Users want more intuitive, easy-to-deploy technology."

LaSelle says that this trend, along with reduced costs and higher functionality with sensory perception-based technologies, is a very strong driver in the cloud computing thought process. The idea is to create learning machines that can essentially take algorithms and become more adept and proficient without a lot of extensive coding at the outset of an implementation.

"The value proposition for robots moving forward is the ability to search, validate and truly become the last mile for intelligent decision making," says LaSelle. "In the same way a surgeon's assistant is tasked with giving precisely the right instrument when the doctor needs it, the learning element is all about optimizing the process to predict what a surgeon might need next."

He says that, after the incision, for example, the surgeon may need a clamp - and we all know that computers are much better and accurate at processing both that type of information and large amounts of data. The ability to learn, predict and accurately provide a surgeon with the right instrument is very much data-driven. "So the last mile is taking what's known, anticipated and expected, and converting it into accurate physical activity," LaSelle says.

Service Robots for Automotive Assembly

General Motors, the largest user of robots in the world, with a fleet of 25,000 robots used in factories around the world, is also stepping up its robotic investigations with a specific long-term target: assembly operations where future robotic solutions will assist people in building better and safer cars.

"We have been observing robotic advancements in Japan and European countries for years, and believe a new field and era in robotics is emerging for what we call service robots," says Dr. Roland Menassa, GM's advanced robotics manager in the Manufacturing Systems Research Lab.

The focus at GM is on developing humanoid, two-arm-type robots, which is behind a current five-year collaborative agreement with NASA's Johnson Space Center that began in 2007. In April, NASA announced it will launch the first human-like robot into space later this year. It will become a permanent resident of the International Space Station. Robonaut 2, or R2, was developed jointly by NASA and General Motors under their cooperative agreement to develop a robotic assistant that can work alongside humans, whether they are astronauts in space or workers at GM manufacturing plants on Earth.

The 300-lb R2 consists of a head and a torso with two arms and two hands. R2 will launch on Space Shuttle Discovery as part of the STS-133 mission planned for September.

"We don't have a finished product at this point, and I don't want people to have the misconception that GM will put humanoid robots into the plants tomorrow. That is not the case," says Menassa. "The technology will continue to evolve but along this journey we stand to benefit from the spin-off technologies that have been developed for eventual use in other facets of the manufacturing process."

From the GM perspective, walking robots are not attractive in a manufacturing setting, so the focus has been on the upper torso, the dexterity of the hands and degrees of freedom to do real work. There has to be a level of intelligence so that you can interact with the robot in a human, intuitive way. And the development needs to drive a new set of safety technologies which GM intends to deploy in other traditional areas.

"Our position is that the technological advancements achieved with the collaboration between GM and NASA will enable us to offer customers safer vehicles and build them in a safer way," Menassa says. "If you look at the control and sensor advancements that we are developing with this robot, it can help us drive the development of future vehicles and safety systems, as well."

Over the very long-term future, measured in decades, the goal is to have a robot that can use the same tools that humans can. And unlike traditional robotics where there's a need to spend 3x to 10x, depending on the application, to enable the robot in the process, this new technology does not need traditional support equipment such as fencing, light screens and safety mats.

"From an assembly perspective, we think these robots can enable a flexibility solution that we cannot provide today," says Menassa. "And at the end of the day, GM uses robotics or any automated solution to enable the process. Process is what drives everything."

Autonomous Robotic Workcells for Surgical Instruments

Robotic Systems & Technology is bringing contemporary automation and robotics into an area of the hospital system called sterile supply with the development of autonomous, robotic workcells to manipulate, track and process surgical instruments and supplies.

RST's latest product, PenelopeCS, is intended to revolutionize the way hospitals manage inventory of surgical instruments. PenelopeCS automates key functions in the hospital's sterile supply department where used/dirty surgical instruments are cleaned, sorted, inspected and repacked into containers to be sterilized for the next procedure.

"We are introducing a very smart robot - a real robot with eyes and a brain into the workplace," says Dr. Michael Treat, a surgeon and founder and leader of Robotic Systems & Technology Inc. "This represents a new trend in robotics and a new approach for medical applications. There are robots in the operating room but those are teleoperated devices and basically serve as sophisticated power steering for the surgeon."

Treat says the expertise developed over the last six years has centered on designing machine vision routines for surgical instruments and the intelligence built into its software to recognize and organize the instruments. But the challenge is both technical and organizational, configuring the machine and software to fit nicely into the existing process. "It's an interactive manufacturing process, and really a new kind of robotics in the sense that it's more involved with people than assembly line robots," says Treat. "PenelopeCS has a brain which is focused and limited, but there is independence and independent activity that the software in the rule base generates. The goal is to advance both robotics and hospital efficiency using a man-machine partnership."

Intelligent, Mobile Robotic Control

From individual robots in hospitals to fleets of AGVs in factories and warehouses, automation solution providers are increasingly relying on autonomous mobile robots to handle navigation, positioning, tasking and configuration.

Mobile Robots Inc. has been manufacturing automated guided vehicles for 15 years, and has thousands of robots installed around the world. The company is a tool and component supplier, not a maker of end-user solutions and they supply design engineers with a base autonomous robot.

"Our robots are designed to do the most sophisticated, autonomous behaviors, navigation and localization without having a roboticist or programmer involved," says Jeanne Dietsch, CEO for Mobile Robots Inc. "They are designed for engineers to add onto and integrate into warehouse management systems, external scheduling and inventory control systems."

The company's Motivity technology is centralized around autonomous navigation and localization but it is more than that. It uses natural, feature-based autonomous navigation and localization which eliminate the need to install lines or beacons used with other AGV solutions. Software tools for setup and installation of the robot, along with networking and interfacing tools plus a real-time control GUI, reportedly make it easy for the installer to use ready-made robot behaviors and responses. "An engineer can create a system by dragging and dropping objects that would take months for a programmer to create," says Dietsch.

MobileEyes software tools provides a way to set up, implement and monitor robots, and serves as a monitoring station or command and control station for users, if desired. Mobile Planner enables customization of a project, so application designers can create missions, tasks, behaviors and personalities appropriate for their specific workplace, whether it's an industrial plant or a hospital patient's room.

The robots learn to recognize their location in a facility based on natural features; for example, learning the facility layout by looking at walls, parts of the factory or the ceiling in a dynamic space like a warehouse. Because they don't require beacons or lines in the floor, it reduces the upfront cost of the system. With older AGV systems, before you put in the first AGV, there is normally a huge infrastructure investment and it isn't something an engineer can try out in a facility beforehand to see how well it works.

Dietsch says that one example of where Motivity systems have proven very useful is an intractable problem for tire factories. In the tire manufacturing process, a manual process is typically used to carry tires from the gantry where they are stored and cured for about two weeks to the press where they are cooked. This process of carrying the tires had been done manually using carts because of the distance from the gantries to the presses. Though there are many forklift trucks and people moving within the facility, robots deployed to handle this task have been able to deal with the traffic and have driven millions of miles per year safely.

In the largest installation for Motivity, there are 38 robots running simultaneously, and the system made a 25-percent throughput improvement over the manual system. The robots are now waiting for the presses to clear, rather than vice versa, and five global tire manufacturers are deploying these systems.

The advantage of Motivity is that it enables flexible automation, and users no longer have a robot that can only go from point A to point B. Instead, the robot can move from A1, A2, A3, A4, A5 and A6 to B1, B2, B3 and B4 in any sequence. Locations can be randomized, unknown or dynamically guided.

"Instead of going onto a cart where it is distributed by someone to various locations where it is actually being used, the material goes onto a robot, and the robot can take it the last mile. The first mile and the last mile are always the most difficult in any delivery situation, and our robot is excellent in those applications."

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