Robotic Highlights from the Hannover Fair

June 2, 2008

4 Min Read
Robotic Highlights from the Hannover Fair

Robots once again overran the Hannover Fair, which comes to a close today. The fair had its usual lineup of industrial robots. But there were highlights, including the world’s strongest articulated arm robot, design advances aimed at making robots safer for nearby human workers and a new pavilion dedicated to mobile robots. Here’s a closer look at each highlight, with video footage included:

World’s Strongest Robot ArmThe fair saw the debut of a new automotive assembly cell built around the world’s strongest six-axis robot, the Titan from KUKA. Capable of handling loads of 1,000 kg and with a reach up to 4,000 mm, Titan was put to work hoisting an entire car body while a second synchronized robot performed wheel assembly tasks. This automation cell is one that IBG Automation GmbH recently built for BMW. “It is the first time we have shown it,” says Jorg Sommer, an IBG engineer and project manager. According to Sommer, earlier versions of IBG’s wheel assembly cells kept the car bodies moving down the production line on a conveyor.  Titan’s load-carrying capabilities, however, now make it possible for a robot to move the metal. Rounding out the assembly cell is a 3D vision system from ISRA VISION AG and sophisticated control software that synchronizes the movements of the two robots.

Human-FriendlyPutting human workers too close to a quick-moving robot isn’t usually a good idea, but robot researchers and suppliers are hard at work to minimize the danger of steel-on-flesh collisions. To take one example from the show, Neuronics AG uses sensors and artificial intelligence techniques to create a robot with enough self-awareness to avoid humans. Called “Katana,” this humanoid robot recently underwent EU safety analysis that allows it to work without the usual safety barriers.  Making robots more mechanically compliant is another broad approach to making them more human friendly. ROMO from FerRobotics Compliant Robot Technology GmbH, for example, is sensitive to pressure and contact and can reduce its strength levels on demand. Festo also showed off an articulated arm robot whose movements derive from 12 of the company’s “fluidic muscle” actuators. Built around aramid-reinforced elastomer tubes, these pneumatic actuators contract when filled with compressed air. Markus Fischer, Festo’s head of corporate design, points out the fluidic muscle behaves much like its biological counterparts, except the fluidic version will continue to hold a load once contracted without additional energy inputs. In the context of robotics, the muscle could be useful as a way to have robots whose rigidity can vary on demand. Fischer explains the stiffness of this robot arm depends entirely on the air pressure, which Festo can quickly and accurately control with fast-acting proportional valves. “It all depends on the pressure. With the pressure high, the robot is very rigid. With the pressure low, you push it away with your hand,” he says.

Going MobileWorking robots don’t always stay in place nowadays. The fair organizers this year set aside a pavilion for nearly 30 companies and research organizations that work on mobile robots and related autonomous systems. These robots crawl, walk or roll as they perform a variety of service, security and industrial tasks. Volkswagen even brought a cutting-edge autonomous automobile, Stanford Racing Team’s Junior, the second place finisher in the DARPA Urban Challenge. Other robots included the VolksBot, a modular robotic platform that can be configured to different tasks. Developed by the Fraunhofer Institute, one VolksBot variant climbs stairs on six articulated legs. Also on display were some of the enabling technologies that make mobile robotics and systems possible in the first place. BlueBotics SA, for instance, showed different applications for its Autonomous Navigation Technology (ANT). This modular navigation system combines controls and sensors — laser, vision and wheel position — into a package that can be integrated into a variety of robots. “Our focus is indoor guided vehicles,” says Nicola Tomatis, the company’s CEO. And in that industrial application, BlueBotics has some advantages in that its navigation system doesn’t require the use of wires, reflectors, painted lines or other guidance aids that many AGVs use. But the company also has a growing interest in service robotics — and in fact, the modular nature of its system allows it to be dropped into products that wouldn’t normally qualify as robots at all. For instance, the company showed a concept for an autonomous wheelchair for use by people too disabled to work the controls on a powered wheelchair.

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