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  • What's New In Robotics?  22.03.2019

    Hi!  In this week's news mix: INM unveils gecko-inspired cobot tech, new mobile, 3D-printing 'Ambots' set for launch and Automata raises Series A funding.  We encounter new artificial muscles, robots inspired by plasma-producing shrimp, liquid metal and much more! 

    Cobots & manufacturing

    Scientists at the INM - Leibniz Institute for New Materials have unveiled a gecko-inspired cobot technology with microstructured, adhesive surfaces for object handling.  Very soft and without sharp corners and edges, the Gecomer technology is designed to further enhance cobot safety and will be displayed at Hannover Messe 2019 (April 1-5).  (Paper: Roll-to-Roll Manufacturing of Micropatterned Adhesives by Template Compression)

    Inm-robot-microstructured-leibniz-institute-new-materials
    Credit: INM - Leibniz Institute for New Materials

    Via AlphaGalileo:

    "The gripping and detaching of objects is affected by smart surface structures. This enables us to dispense with pointed grippers or tweezers," says Eduard Arzt, Scientific Director and Head of the Functional Microstructures Program Division. As a result, objects can be transported and deposited in the production process without any risk of injury to humans or damage to the objects. The adhesive structures are particularly suitable for sensitive parts, such as devices for the automotive, semiconductor and display industries."

    Meet the Ambots; mobile, collaborative 3-D printers, designed to move around factories and support human workers by providing 3-D printed pieces on demand... 

     

    Vancouver, Canada-based collaborative welding robot maker Novarc Technologies has been named to Rocket Builders’ 17th annual “Ready to Rocket” list.  Virtual Strategy reports:

    Novarc’s Spool Welding Robot (SWR) works along with the human operator to allow less-skilled welders to do the work of highly-skilled welders, by combining the cognition of a lower-skilled welder with the repeatable motion of our robot. As a result, Novarc’s SWR can produce high quality welds consistently, and significantly increases welder productivity and safety.

    One of the first firms in the Netherlands to adopt cobot technology, Heemskerk has been relying on Universal Robots' cobots for handling CNC machines and now has one UR5 and seven UR10s in its facility... 

     


    ABB-backed robotics startup Automata Technologies has raised US$7.4 million Series A funding for 'Eva,' its diminutive industrial robot.  Selling for US$6,600 the 'desktop' cobot is designed to "replace tasks, not jobs" and comes with a reach of 600 mm (23.62 in.) and a maximum payload of 1.25 kg (2.75lb)    (H/T TechCrunch).

    industrial-robot-cobot-eva-pick-and-place
    Credit: Automata Technologies

    Writing in Forbes, Afshin Doust, CEO at Advanced Intelligent Systems, made an interesting distinction between 'advanced' and 'practical' robotics: 

    Once a practical application is identified with a big enough market, practical roboticists focus on using the technology at hand and adding more customization to create a solution for automating these tasks. Commercializing robotics helps in advancing the science of robotics. The advanced robotics engineers, without realizing it, are highly dependent on practical roboticists for their future survival.

    In other cobot news:

    Elsewhere...

    In a busy week for bio-inspired bots, researchers unveiled a prototype, shrimp-inspired, plasma-producing underwater robot.  

    prototype-shrimp-inspired-plasma-producing-underwater-robot
    Credit: David Staack

    Via Wired:

    The pistol shrimp doesn’t have a monopoly on underwater plasma generation. People weld underwater using plasma, known as plasma arc welding, which produces intense heat. And researchers can also make plasma in water with lasers. The problem is, those means are inefficient. Using the claw to generate plasma is 10 times more efficient than those previously explored methods [...]  It will, though, require more development to scale.

    Meanwhile, a research group at Saarland University have revealed artificial muscles made from shape-memory wires that "have the ability to bend in almost any direction and to wind themselves around corners." 

    artificial-muscles-made-from-shape-memory-wires
    Credit:  Oliver Dietze

    PhysOrg reports:

    The flexible arms are powered electrically and so can do without the usual pneumatic equipment or other bulky accessories. As the shape-memory alloy itself has sensor properties, the arms can be controlled without the need for additional sensors. The new technology can be used to build large robotic arms with the flexibility of an elephant's trunk or ultrafine tentacles for use in endoscopic operations.

    And Jeff Bezos was spotted cavorting with one of Festo's amazing bio-inspired robot dragonflies at the MARS conference.  (H/T Yahoo!)

    proxy.duckduckgo.com
    Credit:  @JeffBezos

    Meanwhile, in outer space, NASA's Osiris-Rex space bot discovered that the surface of its destination (the Bennu asteroid) is littered with more boulders and rubble than expected. 

    Artist's-impression-of-OSIRIS-REx-spacecraft-mapping-Bennu
    Artist's impression of OSIRIS-REx spacecraft mapping Bennu.
    Credit: NASA / Goddard / University of Arizona / VIA AP

    Via The Japan Times:

    NASA’s plan to scoop up dirt and gravel from an asteroid has hit a snag, but scientists say they can overcome it.Osiris-Rex, is scheduled to descend close to the surface in the summer of 2020. It will extend a robot arm to pick up the sample, which will be returned to Earth in 2023. The spacecraft began orbiting Bennu at the end of last year, after spending two years chasing down the space rock.

    And in other news:

    • Seeing through a robot's eyes helps those with profound motor impairments  (ScienceDaily)
    • Can you murder a robot?  (BBC)
    • Chinese Doctors Successfully Perform Remote Brain Surgery Using Huawei’s 5G Technology  (Eurasia Future)
    • Can Miners Take Robot Truck Technology From Pit to Main Street?  (Bloomberg)
    • What AI Is Still Far From Figuring Out  (The Wall Street Journal)

    Come by next week for more of the latest robotics news!  Until then, please enjoy..

    Five vids for Friday

    1.  Researchers at Columbia Engineering and MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab have demonstrated a system that combines loosely coupled simple components (or "particles") to create functional robots.  (Paper: Particle robotics based on statistical mechanics of loosely coupled components

     

    2.  Separately, researchers have unveiled a magnetic liquid metal that could one day be used to construct robots.  The potential of this technology goes way beyond the creation of "scary" Terminator-esque bots, of course.  The industrial applications of teleoperated --or even collaborative-- liquid metal bots are virtually limitless.  (Paper: Magnetic Liquid Metals Manipulated in the Three-Dimensional Free Space

     

    3.  And if you think Terminator is scary, wait til you see a Tombot in action!  (Also, I want one.)  

     

    4.  MIT CSAIL researchers have proposed a new technique that enables robots to generalize their learning with relatively little data.  The technique enables pick and place operations based on limited knowledge of the objects being handled.  (Paper: kPAM: KeyPoint Affordances for Category-Level Robotic Manipulation

     

    5.  In a development that could help usher in an era of interspecies mediation robots, researchers from the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne's Biorobotics Laboratory have created a system that enabled fish and bees 700 km (435 mi) apart to collaborate on decision making processes.  (Paper: Robots mediating interactions between animals for interspecies collective behaviors)  

     

     

    Read more »
  • Bin Picking the Easy Way vs the Hard Way With Robot Vision

    It's one of the trickiest robotic tasks in the world. But, you don't need a complex solution to solve it. There's a hard way to do bin picking with robot vision and an easy way.

    The Robotiq Wrist Camera URCap version 1.7 is now the fastest and most intuitive vision system for Universal Robots.

    Bin picking is "robotics quest for the holy grail", said Guillame Roberts here on the blog back in 2013. Although 6 years have passed since he wrote that, robotic bin picking is still almost as elusive as it was back then.

    Over the past two decades, a lot of research and development has gone into giving robots the ability to recognize jumbled objects in a box and pick them up individually. This task — which is so simple for us humans — has revealed the limitations of almost every aspect of robotic manipulation, including: robot vision, multi-fingered grasping, artificial intelligence, and trajectory planning.

    It's true that bin picking is now much more possible than it was 5 years ago. Technological advances in all the related fields have provided solutions to may of the challenges which previously made it impossible. However, there's still a long way to go. Last year, Amazon discontinued their yearly picking challenge because it wasn't producing results.

    Despite the advances, most current solutions are complex and require a lot of extra technology, such as advanced 3D vision setups and machine learning.

    But, it doesn't have to be like this. Last year, teams here at Robotiq revealed that you don't have to go for the hard solutions to bin picking. Even with simple robot vision, you can achieve robust bin picking with a robot.

    wrist-camera-urcap-update-cta

    What is bin picking?

    Bin picking is a robotic manipulation task that involves detecting objects which are arranged in a highly unstructured manner and picking them up individually.

    The classic example is to have objects piled on top of each other inside a box. The robot a vision system to detect individual objects. It then uses trajectory planning to grasp each object one by one and remove it from the box.

    This is a very challenging task for robot vision.

    Challenges include:

    • Occlusion — Some objects are partly or completely hidden by the objects on top of them.
    • Lighting — The objects cast shadows on each other which further hides them from the camera.
    • Edge detection — It is unclear where one object starts and the other finishes, which makes it hard to detect the outline of each individual object.

    These issues occur using both 2D and 3D vision. However, they are especially problematic in 2D robot vision as they can make it almost impossible to detect individual objects.

    The hard way to do bin picking: Complex 3D vision

    Hand-E Camera FT 300 Machine Tending-14With complete control over the camera settings and model definition, the software can adapt to any situation.

    There are various commercial solutions for bin picking, but they tend to be quite complex and costly. They can also be quite inflexible — you need to add a lot of extra "stuff" around the robot for the system to work (e.g. fixed cameras, lighting, etc).

    A lot of the available solutions use 3D vision. These require advanced processing and purchasing extra technology to make them work.

    For example, a typical bin picking setup might include:

    • 3D laser scanner(s) — These use laser light to capture a 3D depth image. The sensor produces a "point cloud" of the objects and surrounding area.
    • Stereoscopic vision sensors — These involve using dual cameras to create a 3D image of the environment. They can be used alone or together with a laser scanner to improve the detection accuracy.
    • 3D object detection — These algorithms attempt to find objects within the 3D point cloud. Some use CAD models of the objects that are being detected.
    • Fixed lighting — Some systems require extra lighting to provide consistent illumination of the scene.

    The complexity of these systems varies quite a lot. Some are small, self-contained units which are mounted above the detection area. Others require you to set up various sensors and lights at precise locations around the area. Whatever method they choose, all of them require more technology than a simple Robot Camera, which increases the cost of them.

    Once the technology is set up and the system has been trained, the detection can be quite robust. You program the robot to receive object locations from the sensor and then use trajectory planning to pick the objects up.

    The easy way to do bin picking: Simplify

    There is an easier way to achieve bin picking.

    It only requires a simple Robot Camera.

    This is a technique that was used by the participants at last year's Robotiq User Conference Technical Challenge. It allows you to achieve complex bin picking without the need for complex sensing technology.

    The trick to this technique is to simplify the detection step. Instead of trying to detect objects when they are piled up on top of each other, move them to a place where they can be more easily detected by a normal, 2D vision sensor.

    Here's how it works.

    1. Use the robot gripper to grab a "handful" of the objects that you want to pick. There's no need to detect the objects for this. Simply move the gripper into the box and grasp.
    2. Drop the objects onto a flat surface.
    3. Use the robot vision sensor to detect individual objects on the surface.
    4. Pick up each object one by one.

    That's it!

    The real value of this technique is that it is so easy to implement. It's basically just a pick and place operation with an extra step.

    Of course, this technique doesn't work for every single object. You need to have objects which don't have to be grasped in an exact same way every time. However, if your objects are so fragile that they require delicate handling, you probably won't have them piled into a box in the first place!

    The secret of this technique, as with many good robot programming tricks, is… simplify.

    Simpler robot solutions always have a better chance of success.

     New Call-to-action

    What tricks have you used to simplify a robot picking operation? Tell us in the comments below or join the discussion on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or the DoF professional robotics community.

    Read more »
  • What's New In Robotics?  15.03.2019

    Hi!  In this week's news mix: Barcelona launches a 5G robotics pilot, Circuit Bread meets UR, and could cobots be a way around proposed "robot taxes"?  Elsewhere, we discover USC's potentially ground-breaking algorithm, zap swordfish with Colin Angle, admire a soft gripper that can lift 100 times its weight and much more!

    Cobots & manufacturing

    CCIONA, Orange and 5G Barcelona have launched a “Collaborative and autonomous robots” pilot to explore the impact of low latency 5G technology on robot-to-robot communication in manufacturing environments.  

     

    Reeco Automation has received the Henry Ford Award for successfully integrating a collaborative robot into Ford's manufacturing process.  "Both larger and smaller manufacturers are increasingly seeing the benefits of integrating cobots into their production processes, not to replace the human workforce but to complement them," Reeco's Managing Director, Llewelyn Rees told Robotics Tomorrow.

    Circuit Bread met up with Tim DeGrasse from Universal Robots to find out more about the company's collaborative robots.  The result?  Circuit Bread staff are now "actively trying to figure out how we can justify getting one of these in the office"... 

     

    An astonishing 79 per cent of automation distributors do not believe their customers understand the safety requirements of installing a collaborative robot, according to the results of the Global Robotics Report.   [If you're new to cobot safety topics, make sure to check out Robotiq's eBook "Collaborative Robots Risk Assessment, An Introduction."]

    Doosan released video showing its cobot helping out with a tire change.... 

     

    Collaborative robots may provide a way for companies  "to avoid the wrathful eye of the regulators, as they look to impose punitive measures on businesses which replace humans with automation," Bernard Marr suggested in Forbes this week. "Politicians have already proposed “robot taxes” to cover these eventualities – fostering harmonious working relationships between humans and machines could be a trend which will set people’s minds at ease in 2019." 

    In part 4 of its “Doing with duAro” miniseries, Kawasaki introduces the duAro2, the latest addition to its line of dual-arm cobots... 

     

    Festo has revealed the BionicSoftHand --a pneumatically operated, bio-inspired gripper that builds on existing Festo technology and could one day find its way into collaborative work spaces. 

     

    Via Hydraulics & Pneumatics:

    The BionicSoftArm is a new development of Festo's BionicMotionRobot, whose range of applications has been significantly expanded. Its modular design can be combined with up to seven pneumatic bellows segments and rotary drives. This guarantees maximum flexibility in terms of reach and mobility, enabling it to work around obstacles even in the tightest of spaces. At the same time, it is completely flexible and can work safely with people.

    In related news:


    Elsewhere...

    In what could prove to be a major breakthrough for robotics development, DARPA has announced the development of an AI-controlled robotic limb that can learn over time in much the same way animals and humans do.

    robot-leg-university-southern-california-mathew
    Credit: University of Southern California/Mathew Lin 

    All part of a wider project targeting the development of true lifelong machine learning, the new, bio-inspired algorithm at the heart of the system is able to learn a new walking task by itself after only 5 minutes of unstructured play (also known as "motor babbling").  The algorithm enables robot limbs to adapt to other tasks without any additional programming.   (More: PC Mag has an interview with Dr. Francisco Valero-Cuevas, co-author of a paper on the research.  Paper: Autonomous functional movements in a tendon-driven limb via limited experience)

    iRobot CEO Colin Angle, co-founder of Robots in Service of the Environment (RSE) has announced the launch of the Guardian LF1 Mark 3, the latest prototype version of his swordfish zapping and gathering robot. 

    robots-in-service-of-environment
    Credit: Robots in Service of the Environment 

    Vis RSE:

    "The Lionfish are destroying the coral reef and decimating fish populations in the Atlantic. The latest innovations incorporated into the RSE Guardian LF1, enable the undersea robotic solution to go deeper, fish longer and pull in a larger haul. With each technical milestone we cross we get one step closer to saving our greatest natural resource by empowering fisherman with new tools,” said Colin Angle.

    Roboticists at the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC) in Florida, U.S.A. are working on a new humanoid robot dubbed 'Nadia' (after gymnast Nadia Comăneci, the first gymnast to be awarded a perfect score of 10.0 at the Olympic Games). 

    roboticists-ihmc-humanoid-robot-nadia
    Credit: IHMC

     

    It's part of a three year project that launched in January 2019, but this week IEEE Spectrum's Evan Ackerman published a fascinating interview with Robert Griffin, a research scientist at IHMC that gets into the nuts and bolts of the project:

    "We’re targeting the height and weight of a human, as well as being in the ballpark of human volume. So design targets are between 5'7" and 6'0", and sub-90 kg. [...]  We’re really hesitant to say when you’ll be seeing a Nadia walking around, because we want to design the robot properly and not rush things.  But I can say that one of the final ONR project goals is to show Nadia performing tasks autonomously."


    Finally, a new study has found that when robots beat humans in contests for cash prizes, people tend to regard themselves as being "less competent and expend slightly less effort—and tend to dislike the robots," Futurity reported. 

    playing-against-robot

    What surprised me most about this research is not the human reactions it describes, but the fact that an easy fix for this issue appears to have been missed:  simply pay robots in a currency they can understand --reliable power supplies, quality care and maintenance, well-written code and excellent after sales service-- and they won't have any further interest in hustling humans for cash prizes.  Easy peasy!  ;)

    And in other news:

    • Our Robotics Innovation Centre has been officially launched  (CSIRO)
    • 3 New Chips to Help Robots Find Their Way Around  (IEEE Spectrum)
    • Meet Tengai, the job interview robot who won't judge you  (BBC)
    • You Might Be a Robot. This Is Not a Joke.  (Bloomberg)
    • Researchers explore interactions between preschoolers and robotic partners  (TechXplore)

    Come by next week for more of the latest robotics news!  Until then, please enjoy..

    Five vids for Friday

    1.  Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have created an origami-inspired, vacuum-driven, 3D-printed soft gripper that can lift 100 times its own weight.  (Paper: A Vacuum-driven Origami “Magic-ball” Soft Gripper

     

    2.  University of Washington researchers have unveiled a robot that can feed people who find it a challenge to feed themselves.  (Paper: Towards Robotic Feeding: Role of Haptics in Fork-Based Food Manipulation

     

    3.  MetaFly is the latest bio-inspired bot from Edwin Van Ruymbeke.  Instead of relying on motors, like traditional designs, MetaFly relies solely on its wings, which eliminates the need for bulky batteries. 

     

    4.  Cambridge Consultants unveiled Mamut this week.  Mamut is an autonomous, mobile robot packed with sensors that "explores crop fields, capturing data on health and yield at the level of individual plants and on a massive scale."  

     


    5.  Science Robotics released a cool video that asks "Where's my robotic construction crew?" (More: A review of collective robotic construction

     

     

    Read more »

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