Engineering News

January 19, 1998 Design News


Host of novel uses foreseen for smart

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

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

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

Hand-held radar device detects breathing,

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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