21st-century gnomes

Robots have a history and conquer the world: the Fraunhofer IPA is one of the world’s leading centres for robot development
Stuttgart, 15.07.2008 | 

Whether in production halls, hospitals or even in children’s bedrooms, robots are part of everyday life in today’s society. In excess of 130,000 industrial robots are in use in German firms, and mobile robots are used to guard storehouses or in medical fields.

An exhibition that runs in the Haus der Wirtschaft exhibition and congress centre in Stuttgart until July 19th is showing the varied history of robots on the interface between art and science, fiction and reality. However, present-day robots share no similarities with their tin human-like ancestors from science fiction films.

In Stuttgart, the Fraunhofer Institut für Produktionstechnik und Automatisierung (institute for production technology and automation - IPA) is a centre for robot development. With more than 10 years of experience, the Fraunhofer IPA has made a name for itself worldwide as one of the leading experts for service robots. The applications are very varied, and the robots developed - the "gnomes’ of the new millennium - are constantly being improved and becoming more and more specialised. One of these technical helpers from the IPA’s laboratories was designed to detect components stored in an unordered fashion that are needed in production. The robot brings the component to wherever it is required in the production process. To do this, the robot needs three-dimensional abilities, i.e. it must be able to "see’ in 3-D, identify objects based on their shape, grip them and bring them to the correct location for further processing. Sometime in the future it is possible therefore to imagine a factory where lots of flexible helpers move around the production halls, replacing bulky machines that take a great deal of time and effort to design.

There are some things that a robot can do better than a person. Researchers found that car door seals that were glued were considerably better than conventional methods. In order to guarantee high-quality gluing, the seals have to be inserted automatically. In response to this, the IPA developed a sensor-regulated robotic tool that joins self-adhesive strips of seal from a roll.

The development of robots does not render humans superfluous. In fact, the technical helper can only do what it has been programmed to do, and robots are increasingly being used as an additional helping hand. The area of mobile and independent service robotics that humans use as assistance systems is seen as one of today’s highest-growth markets. The field of security and monitoring in particular makes up a central subgroup of service robotics. Figures from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) forecast global growth from 160 to 5500 robots between 2007 and 2010 in the monitoring sector alone. For this area, the Fraunhofer IPA provides a monitoring robot that is mobile and thus not restricted to monitoring its environment from a fixed location. The small robot, which weighs just 30 kilos, is called Secur-O-bot. It is no larger than 40 x 40 centimetres and detects fire, smoke, gas, heat and motion by extending sensor probes.

One of the IPA’s inspection robots has already been used in practice. MIMROex was the world’s first mobile robot to successfully carry out dangerous and challenging tasks on oil rigs. It manoeuvred through passages as narrow as 75 centimetres, crossing a variety of very different terrains in extremely cold temperatures. The robot’s regular "tour’ involves monitoring the environment using sensors (camera, microphone, gas and fire sensors). It reads data from measuring devices and passes on all of the information recorded directly via radio.

By contrast, Care-O-bot3 is designed for members of the general public. The service robot, which is the size of a child, moves around the home freely and safely to do housework, fetching and carrying any kind of items or communicating with people. This is thanks to numerous innovations in the areas of control, sensors (perception) and kinematics. The new generation of mobile service robots moves around on four steered and driven wheels to explore unknown environments autonomously, learning to manage new tasks and perform these independently. Although the highly flexible arm of Care-O-bot3 is not nearly as complex as a human arm, several different motion sequences facilitate ample areas of use, and its three-finger hand is enough to allow it to grip and handle everyday objects.

Like every good household, Care-O-bot3 has a tray that also functions as a touch screen that is used to control the one-armed helper. The robot records its environment using stereovision colour cameras, laser scanners and active 3-D infrared sensors. The large quantities of data resulting are combined and evaluated jointly using several computers to enable the robot to acquire usable information and react to it in a meaningful way. Care-O-bot3 can detect and locate several different objects as well as simple gestures in its environment. Humans can also interact physically with the robot to teach it new motion sequences, for example to clean a table, by guiding the robot’s arm directly, thus programming the robot to learn the task.