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Engineering News

January 19, 1998 Design News

ENGINEERING NEWS

Host of novel uses foreseen for smart robots

The push is on for a national initiative to develop technology for 'intelligent' machines

by Walter S. Wingo, Washington Editor


Washington, DC--An intelligent machine has the ability to sense both expected and unexpected changes in its environment and respond quickly and appropriately.

In the United States, limited forms of smart robots have been largely confined to electronics, automotive, and space industries. Seeking to accelerate and promote robotic technologies into wider fields is a volunteer advisory group, the Intelligent Machines Cooperative Council (RIMCC).

Supporters say the initiative would keep design engineers busy for decades creating new robotic applications.

To achieve its aims, RIMCC calls for a coordinated nationwide effort, encompassing the support of industry, universities, U.S. laboratories, and governments. Council members hope to get the federal government to back it both in spirit and in funding for national testbed centers.

Possibilities for new intelligent products abound, claims Patrick Eicker, director of the largest robotics R&D laboratory in the United States, at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, NM.

"Imagine a world where smart cars avoid collisions, where surgeons guide molecularly precise instruments instead of hand-held scalpels, where satellites the size of marbles monitor rogue nations, and where grasshopper-size sensors survey a battlefield and detect and remove deadly mines," Eicker entreats.

RIMCC members envision additional new projects for designers of intelligent machinery in many other industries.

Robot aides. Among them: robotic "friends" that help the elderly and handicapped; delivery systems that can handle packages of any shape; butcher robots for cleaning and cutting beef, chicken, and fish carcasses and autonomous systems for construction, sandblasting, and mining.

Also, automatic movers of cameras and sets for filming; robotic bellboys for hotels and motels; intelligent systems for searching and rescuing and for protecting the environment; driverless farm machines; service robots that automatically collect hazardous wastes in hospitals, and a robotic guide that interacts with park visitors.

In manufacturing, the experts foresee human-like dexterity for materials handling and assembly, automatic inspection and maintenance systems, and robot forklifts and item pickers for conveyor systems. Future systems, they add, will work with product designers and front-line workers to ensure manufacturability and then autonomously reprogram themselves for new product designs.

Later in the 21st century, RIMCC members predict, engineers will be designing applications for robots that learn by imitation, recognize faces of users, and even appear to display emotions.

Much R&D remains before designers can tackle most of the contemplated applications. The proposed national initiative would concentrate on such R&D.

Reaching goal. For example, more accuracy in large-reach manipulators is needed. At present the precision and repeatability of manipulator positions is related to their overall dimensions. A research goal is the invention of a manipulator of about 10 m with absolute precision measured in millimeters. As manipulators grow, ways also must be found to damp oscillations.

Robot vision must improve, too. One aim is development of a real-time self-calibrating system for recognizing objects in 3-D. Current systems are slow and too hard to calibrate.

Also essential is creation of new, cheaper sensors, such as solid-state replacements for gyroscopes and other inertial- sensing devices. Low-cost slippage sensors are needed for integration into automatic systems for controlling grasp forces. Robotic navigation and surgery will require more reliable force sensors.

A major hindrance to intelligent machinery is the lack of open-architecture robot controllers. Technicians cannot now replace components in a controller from one robot to another. Plug-and-play interfaces for sensors and actuators are needed.

Many advances already are being made in intelligent machine technology. To show examples to politicians, RIMCC and Sandia held a full-day Congressional Expo on Robotics and Intelligent Machines on Capitol Hill.

Among the intelligent machines demonstrated were: an advanced intelligent system for production of electronics; a robotic surgical assistant; a six-legged walking robot for exploring rough terrain, and wheeled "robugs" less than two inches square.

A microscope at the Congressional Expo displayed "microgrippers" smaller than a human hair. They are an early step in creating the processes for assembling nanorobots the size of a grain of sand. Some day nanorobots may perform exploratory and surgical tasks inside the human body.

Most members of Congress and the Administration who stopped by the Expo voiced approval of the initiative's aims. They seemed less enthusiastic, however, about assigning federal funds for testbeds.


Herkules strengthens production

Erie, PA--Herkules USA Corp., a machine shop specializing in the design, production, and retrofit of heavy-duty metal-cutting machine tools, has incorporated the Machine Tool Management System (MTMS) into its production processes.

The product, a shop floor control networking system from Greco Systems, El Cajon, CA, is a software suite that combines five individual manufacturing software applications in one complete package.

Herkules' traditional parts-programming process required storing parts programs in the machines in an offline PC and downloading them into the memory of the machine-tool controls from a portable computer.

This 20-minute time-consuming process required frequently used programs to be stored on a disk and kept in a catalog or rack. When any of these programs are required, the PC is wheeled onto the shop floor and linked to the control. The necessary disk is then inserted into the PC and the program is downloaded to the control.

When Herkules introduced SoftCAM, a CAM system, and Heckert, a dual-pallet machining center, this 20-minute process became noticeably inadequate because 32 bits of memory is needed to store the longer SoftCAM programs.

This would become a greater problem down the road as Heckert will eventually be used to produce complex parts requiring long programs.

Further complicating things, an expected increase in work orders would triple the number of employers and require more machines, making efficiency a critical factor in production.

To eliminate the wasted time, Herkules purchased the DNC networking system to manage the parts programs and the processes associated with them.

The system consists of two PCs and five software applications such as WinDNC software, a Windows-based application that stores and manages parts programs--including the long programs required by the dual-pallet machine, and the WinNC Editor, a package for part-program editing capabilities.

One PC features Windows 95 and runs the MTMS application. This PC sits in the engineering manager's office and has a direct link to the machine tool controls. The second PC, which uses Windows NT, sits in the programming area and runs on SoftCAM.

Programs are now stored in electronic files on manufacturing engineer, Al Bruneau's PC, allowing him to queue programs for operators to download directly to their machine tool control. Known as Remote Call Down, this feature allows operators to work from their stations and communicate with Bruneau without running back and forth to the office PC.

Downloading a program now takes only seconds, and operators mastered the system in about a day. "All they have to do is call up a program before they initiate the download," says Bruneau. "It was a no-brainer."

As a result of instituting SoftCAM and the MTMS software suite, Herkules realized a 10% total labor savings, specifically in parts tooling setup and, as a result of this, the company expects to save approximately $5,500 within the first year.

MTMS is customized to meet user applications and is available in a 16- or 32-bit version. It is also capable of communicating with nearly every NC machine tool ever made.


Hand-held radar device detects breathing, heartbeats

Atlanta, GA--Researchers at Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) have developed a hand-held radar device that records breathing movements from distances of up to 10 ft, even through doors and walls. Called the "Radar Flashlight," it can be used by police, military, and emergency personnel to detect concealed or trapped persons and remotely assess vital signs.

Encased in a housing about the size and shape of a large flashlight, the device features a 24.1 GHz transmitter that emits a 15- to 20-degree beam. A small antenna collects the reflected signal and an external signal processor analyzes the data. Principal research scientist Gene Greneker explains that movement by the target (even the small rise and fall of the chest associated with breathing) causes a Doppler shift in the frequency of the returning signal. The processor essentially subtracts the data that remains constant; data that is not eliminated is defined as the "respiration signature," and is passed to a separate display.

A variation on the flashlight may also be used to detect and analyze a human heartbeat from distances up to 30 ft. The device was developed in part to monitor the heartbeats of archers at the 1996 Olympics. (Skilled athletes reportedly improve their accuracy by sensing their own heartbeats and releasing the arrow between

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