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Researchers develop 'fast-thinking' collaborative robotics

24 October 2015

Researchers have developed a fast sensor system for robots that adjusts their movements in order to avoid colliding with the people and objects around them.

Researcher Marianne Bakken attempting to get close and personal with a robot arm – moving in all directions to try to get the robot to collide with her; but it manages to avoid her every time (photo: Werner Juvik/SINTEF)

Modern industrial robots commonly weigh in at several tonnes and for this reason are placed inside  enclosures to prevent them colliding with, and causing damage to, the people and objects around them. The drawback is that they are static and perform repetitive tasks entirely separated from their fellow human operators on the same production line.

Marianne Bakken from the Scandinavian research organisation, SINTEF, has been working with ‘collaborative robots’ - machines equipped with light-duty arms that can more easily be integrated into existing production systems.

"These robots are a few kilos lighter than previous models," she says. "They're safer to work with and shut down gently if they come into contact with a foreign object. Today, however, robot arms of this type are blind. To avoid constant collisions, they need to be more intelligent. And this is where we enter the stage. By installing a sensor on the robot, we create a safe machine that can 'see'. Perhaps this will enable them to work alongside people, instead of being shut away in cages."

Under a SINTEF ICT project called SEAMLESS, the researchers obtained funding to investigate the potential of installing a 3D sensor on a robot that would give it the capability of detecting objects in the space around it and sense where any given object is located in relation to the its arm.

A robot relies on being continuously fed with data so that it can decide in which directions it should be moving. In this case, the sensor generates data that are sent to a PC, where they are processed and information relayed to the robot arm. The SINTEF researchers have succeeded in speeding up the necessary calculations.

"We've managed to obtain updates of the robot's movements at a rate of ten times a second," says Bakken. 

Previously, the movement update calculation took many seconds, by which time the robot might already have collided with something. But now the robot doesn't need to stop and think twice before it makes its next move.

"By combining fast sensor technology with smart algorithms, we can achieve a uniform and seamless manoeuvre," says Bakken.

The researchers have developed a universal system that they now want to apply in a number of future projects. At the moment they're working on selling the concept to the industrial sector. 

"It's also possible to move the pedestal on which the robot stands. This allows the robot to move with greater autonomy", says Bakken. "In the future we can envisage robots that move around the workplace carrying out tasks without colliding with people or the objects around them," she says.

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