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Little Helper Robot Wants to Be Big Help on Factory Floor

little helperThe manufacturing industry in many countries, facing labor shortages and pressed to become ever more efficient, can certainly use a little help. Or how about a Little Helper?

Mads Hvilshøj, Simon Bøgh, and their team at Aalborg University in Denmark have been working on an industrial robot, which they named Little Helper, designed for handling parts and moving them around on a factory floor. The robot consists of a manipulator arm mounted on a mobile platform.

Manipulator arms like those manufactured by KUKA, ABB, and others have been around for decades. And mobile platforms like the warehouse robots developed by Kiva Systems and Seegrid have been gaining more adoption lately. But combining a manipulator arm and a mobile base is a more recent development (KUKA unveiled a mobile manipulator called youBot last year) with very interesting possibilities.

The Danish researchers equipped Little Helper's mobile platform with an array of on-board sensors (laser range, ultrasonic, and motor encoders), which help with navigation and safety. The manipulator system consists of an Adept six-degrees-of-freedom industrial arm, plus a tool changer and various tools. The robot also relies on a vision system, which consists of a camera with adjustable lens and light system. The current prototype, built entirely from commercial off-the-shelf components, can run continuously for eight hours, and is capable of automatically recharging itself when needed.

To program Little Helper for operation, users have to load its computer with digital layouts of the work areas and let the robot scan the environment with its sensors. With some additional programming using a graphical user interface and a touch-screen, the robot can start to navigate autonomously, pick parts, transport them, and even perform assembly tasks. The robot's different systems are decoupled, so when Little Helper is driving around, only the mobile platform is active; when the manipulator is in use, the mobile platform remains stationary. This approach helps to ensure that the bot operates safely.

But before we can see Little Helpers toiling in factory floors, the researchers will have to overcome several challenges. For one, they have to figure out if their robot can adapt to a wide variety of environments and perform tasks in a cost-effective way. The robot must be able to deal with errors and unpredictable situations and always operate in a safe way. The researchers also have to improve the programming interface, so setup is easy and not too expensive -- a crucial factor in getting this type of robot, which can cost tens of thousands of euros, out of the lab and into real factories. The Danish group plans to address these and other issues by testing their robot in a real facility at Grundfos, one of the world's largest pump manufacturers.

What caught my interest in this project is that it appears to be at the intersection of two distinct robotics areas: the well established industrial robotics area and the emerging service robotics area. This confluence is very promising. Also, Little Helper is a good example of integrating existing technologies into a novel robotics product, which, as Hvilshøj puts it, "is essential in order to gain acceptance and simplify implementation in real-world industrial environments." Does anyone need a Little Helper?

Watch a demo of the machine at work: 

Image and video: Mads Hvilshøj/Aalborg University

Samuel Bouchard is a co-founder of Robotiq in Quebec City.

Nao Robot Does Star Wars

Last month I posted a video of Bruno Maisonnier, founder and CEO of Aldebaran Robotics, showing off the newly enhanced Nao humanoid robot. Then several people asked me to see the full sequence of Nao doing its "Star Wars" act, with hilarious impressions of Darth Vader and R2-D2. Here it is:

Kinect Teleoperated Robot Does Pushups For You

Exercise is much less work if you can pawn the hard stuff off on a teleoperated robot. The system in this video is kinda like the physical master/slave system that we saw last year, combined with Willow Garage’s PR2 Kinect demo. While I’m sure this technology has at least a few practical uses, I’m personally hoping that all those humanoid robot competitions will start requiring Kinect teleoperation. Just imagine how much more entertaining it would be to watch robot combat and wildly gesticulating humans at the same time, kinda like this. And you know what, that sounds cool enough that maybe it should be made into a movie or something

Via [ I Heart Robotics ] and [ Robots Dreams ]

New Roomba 700 Series from iRobot

Along with the new Scooba 230, iRobot has today unveiled a redesigned version of the Roomba, the 700 series. There are three different models: the 760, 770, and 780, and similar to other Roomba series, they mostly seem to differ from each other in frills. Here are the core upgrades from the 500 series:

-New design is smaller and sleeker.

-Battery life is 50% longer than previous generations (although it’s not clear whether they’re talking about the ‘premium’ Roombas with the increased battery life).

-I’ll quote this from the PR: “Persistent Pass Cleaning Pattern – when Roomba senses excessive dirt and debris, it uses a brush-like, back and forth motion to focus its cleaning effort in the dirty area it has detected.” Interesting; we’ll have to see it in operation.

The 770 and 780 include a few extras not present in the 760:

-Also quoted from the PR: “Debris Detector uses an optical sensor to detect larger, soft particles on the floor like popcorn, lint or paper chads, so Roomba can respond by focusing its cleaning pattern to ensure deeper, concentrated cleaning in that area.” The 760 doesn’t do this, so we’ll have to find out how exactly this differs from the regular ‘dirt detect’ feature that the 500 series Roombas have, and whether that feature is present in the 760.

-They both light up an indicator light when their dust bins are full.

-The 780 has a fancy capacitive touch sensor interface. No more buttons!

The Roomba 760 starts at $449; the 770 and and 780 will certainly be more expensive, possibly in $50 increments but we’ll find out shortly… We’ll be getting our first look and hands-on at CES starting Tuesday, and we’ve just scheduled a personal demo and interview on Friday, so stay tuned.

Holiday Season Robot Videos

My colleagues over at the Robots Podcast (full disclosure: I'm part of the team) have started a collection of Christmas Robots videos on their YouTube channel for the upcoming festive season:

To get into the holiday mood, what better than watching some crazy robot videos! Make a holiday video featuring any robot, real or not, and put it on YouTube. Send us a link and we'll feature it on our dedicated playlist and on our website!

For now two videos are up, but keep your eyes open: I know of at least a couple of other submissions in preparation!

Update 1: Two more Holiday Season robot videos have been added to the Robots Podcast Holiday Season YouTube channel:

Update 2: Three more videos featuring NAO, a robot band and the HRP-2 have been added - view them here!

UK Researchers Using Charles Babbage Robot Head to Develop Emotional Machines

the emotional computer

"Charles, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," Peter Robinson says to the passenger sitting in the car next to him.

The passenger is a robot head that Robinson, a professor of computer technology at Cambridge University in England, is using to explore the role of emotions in human-machine interaction.

Can computers understand emotions? Can computers express emotions? Can they feel emotions?

These are the questions that Robinson and his team at Cambridge's Computer Laboratory want to answer.

When people talk to each other, they express their feelings through facial expressions, tone of voice, and body postures. The interesting thing is that humans do the same even when they are interacting with machines.

So could we build better computers, robots, and other machines if they could understand and respond to these hidden signals?

Robinson's team believe the answer is yes. They are developing systems to analyze faces, gestures, and speech and infer emotions. They hope these systems could improve human-machine interactions in real situations.

Charles is a robotic head modeled on Charles Babbage. (Am I the only one who didn't notice the similarity? And is Charles a Hanson Robotics creation?) It's one of the research tools Robinson uses in his experiments, which include riding a car simulator with the robot as a GPS assistant.

"The way that Charles and I can communicate," Robinson says in a short movie called "The Emotional Computer" [watch below], "shows us the future of how people will interact with machines."

Do you agree? Would you replace your car GPS with Charles the robot head?

Image and video: "The Emotional Computer"/Cambridge University

Heartland Robotics Developing $5k 'PC of Robots'?

Heartland Robotics is a company headed by legendary iRobot co-founder Rodney Brooks. It’s been in ’stealth mode’ since its founding in 2008, meaning that they’re working on something cool enough to have raised some $32 million in funding, but they’re not ready to tell the world about it yet.

With the latest round of funding (which involves as bunch of investors being shown around and told what the plan is), some new information has leaked out from Heartland, and it’s tantalizing:

Visitors to Heartland describe a robot that looks like a human from the waist up, with a torso; either one or two arms with grippers; and a camera where you might expect the head to be. The robot is on a rolling base rather than legs; it can be moved around but doesn’t move autonomously. The arm and gripper can be quickly trained to do a repetitive task just by moving them, no software code required.

It’s possible that this robot is based in part on MIT’s Obrero platform, pictured above. There’s more:

“Brooks apparently likens Heartland’s robot, which is intended to perform assembly and packaging tasks that low-wage factory workers do today, to Apple’s iPhone. He’s interested in encouraging a community of software developers to create applications that would teach the robot to do tasks such as using its camera to recognize a defective widget and pulling it off the conveyor belt.”

Thinking about robots as hardware that runs apps is not unique to Heartland, but the deciding factor could be the target price point: a shockingly low $5000. At that level, it’s easy for businesses to justify purchasing a robot just to try it out, since the risk is so small. And if they can set the robot up on an assembly line (which seems to be its general target market), it could very rapidly start making things more efficient for even small businesses, especially if the robot is as easy to program as they’re trying to make it.

Even if it takes three of these robots to do the job of one human, you’re still talking about a very positive investment. Heck, even if you needed ten of them, a $5k a pop they’d probably pay for themselves in less than a year when you consider the overhead that humans require, and they’d work 24/7 to boot.

For a long (long long LONG) time, the robotics industry has been looking for its PC, the one killer platform or application that has the potential to make robots simple, cheap, reliable, and useful. It hasn’t turned out to be vacuums, but it might just be a cheap robot worker from Heartland.

Stay tuned.

[ Heartland Robotics ] via [ Boston.com ] and [ NBF ]

Aldebaran's New Nao Robot Demo

aldebaran robotics nao humanoid robot

At the IEEE Humanoids conference early this month, I met the new Nao.

The latest version of the popular humanoid robot, created by Paris-based Aldebaran Robotics, has a more robust body, longer arms, a more advanced motion engine, and a new head with improved temperature control, Wi-Fi communications, and audio input and output.

In terms of software, Aldebaran improved whole body motion controls, voice recognition, sound localization, and face and image recognition (Nao can learn to identify objects like photographs and book covers). And the robot has now a "fall manager," which detects a fall is going to happen and positions the arms and legs in a more protective posture.

To see a demo, I met with Aldebaran founder and CEO Bruno Maisonnier, who it turns out is a big geek. He told me that he was a computer enthusiast in the 1980s and ended up working in IT. But as a science fiction fan, he also loved robots and dreamed that one day they'd become part of everyone's lives -- just as computers did. He founded Aldebaran to help transform that dream into reality.

Nao was the first robot the company created. It has rapidly gained popularity as a reliable and flexible robotics research platform. It's used at universities and companies in 30 countries and also in the RoboCup competition. Aldebaran has sold 1,065 Nao units. Each costs approximately 12,000 euros.

Next year, Aldebaran plans to unveil Romeo, an adult-size humanoid designed to help elderly and disabled people with everyday tasks.

Maisonnier loves to show off the Nao. Everywhere he goes he lugs a suitcase with a Nao nestled in a custom foam insert. As you can tell from the video, the relationship between creator and creature is sometimes contentious. But in the end love prevails. Watch:

Gostai Jazz Telepresence Robot Unveiled

gostai jazz telepresence robot

French robotics company Gostai is unveiling today a mobile robot called Jazz designed for "telepresence and telesurveillance."

The waist-high robot, which a user can remote control using a web-based interface, rolls on two wheels and has a head that can move in any direction, with a camera stuck on its forehead. The price starts at 7900 euros.

This is the first time that the Paris-based company, known for its robotics software, ventures into hardware.

Jean-Christophe Baillie, founder and CEO of Gostai, tells me that they built the robot "very quickly," relying on the experience they gained by interacting with robot manufacturers that use their software.

"This is a little revolution for Gostai," he says, "and we are very excited about the potential of this little guy!"

I've tested a couple of telepresence robots this year [see our special report on robotic telepresence] and look forward to driving the Jazz as well. But just by looking at the specs and video I've noticed several interesting things.

First, the robot can not only use Wi-Fi -- as other telepresence robots do -- but it can also connect to a 3G cellphone network. From what I know, this is the first telepresence robot with this capability. [Update: Despite what its website says, Gostai hasn't implemented 3G yet. The company says it will be available soon.]

Another interesting thing is that its head can turn in any direction. This is very helpful when you want to see the floor, or when you want to look, say, left or right without actually moving the robot.

Also interesting, the Jazz robot runs on Gostai's Urbi open-source robot operating system, the company's flagship product, and also uses the GostaiNet cloud computing infrastructure. Baillie says some features, like video recording and voice synthesis (if you're using the Jazz at marketing events, you can prepare a text document and the robot will speak it aloud), already rely on the cloud and they plan to add more cloud-based capabilities soon.

But the most innovative thing in my opinion is the web-based remote control interface. You drive the robot just by clicking with the mouse on the video feed. Say you're driving the robot and the video is showing a long corridor -- you just click at the end of the corridor and the robot will go there. "It's a bit like the 3D cursor of Google Street View," is how Baillie puts it.

(For comparison, the Anybots QB, which you control using the keyboard's arrow keys, was very easy to drive in my tests; the Willow Garage Texai has a web-based control pad that you have to click with the mouse, and I found this approach not as easy to use.)

gostai jazz telepresence robot

In terms of limitations, the robot is short -- only 1 meter tall -- so people talking to it will be looking down, unless they're sitting (and even then, they still have to stare down a bit).

And then there's the lack of a LCD screen so that people interacting with the robot can see the face of the remote operator -- a capability that some argue is essential for a true telepresence experience.  

Robotic telepresence expert Sanford Dickert, who helped develop the Texai robot at Willow Garage, writes at his Pilot Presence blog:

Interestingly enough, the team at Gostai have eschewed the concept of two way visual presence which I use as a hallmark for a true RPS [remote presence system], and play in the range of the WowWee Rovio or the iRobot ConnectR.

But that might change. Baillie, the Gostai CEO, tells me that they're working on a version of Jazz with a screen that "should be available soon." They built the current model to have a less expensive offering that they believe "will find its niche." 

The robot, which can run for five hours and docks automatically at a recharging station, comes in three versions. Jazz Connect, for offices, costs 7900 euros. The Jazz Icon, for marketing events, comes equipped with a tray for carrying objects and costs 7900 euros, or it can be rented for 1800 euros. The Jazz Security, costs 8400 euros and has more autonomy and a camera that can see in the dark.  

Watch the Gostai Jazz robot in action:

Images and video: Gostai

Willow Garage Sells First PR2 Robots

willow garage pr2 robot

Silicon Valley robotics company Willow Garage is announcing today that it has sold PR2 robots to four institutions in Korea, France, and the United States.

These are the first PR2 units sold by the company, which hopes to make the robot a common platform that users in academia and industry can tinker with and improve, sharing their results and accelerating the development of applications.

willow garage pr2 robotWillow Garage, based in Menlo Park, Calif., has become the leading proponent of open source robotics. It has developed an open source software platform called ROS, or Robot Operating System, that is becoming widely adopted around the world, running not only on the PR2 but also on a variety of robots.

The PR2 purchase means that the ROS community is growing stronger.

The company developed the PR2 because it believed robotics researchers were burdened by the cost and time it took to develop their own robots and software. The company wants to eliminate this barrier, allowing roboticists to focus on applications for personal robotics use in homes and offices.

Each PR2, short for Personal Robot 2, costs U.S. $400,000.

The buyers announced today are: Samsung Electronics in Suwon, Korea; Laboratory of Analysis and Architecture of Systems, part of France's National Center for Scientific Research, in Toulouse; University of Washington, in Seattle; and George Washington University, in Washington, D.C.

The PR2, based on a robot built at Stanford University, is a powerful and flexible platform. It consists of an omnidirectional based equipped with two arms and grippers. It has two onboard computer servers, power system, and a sensor suite with cameras, LIDAR, inertial measurement unit, and other devices. 

Early this year, Willow Garage gave away free PR2 robots to 11 institutions, as part of its beta program [see robots prior to delivery below, with the production team]. In September, the company announced that it was making the PR2 commercially available. The company says that there are now 16 research labs worldwide using the PR2.

willow garage pr2 robot

The purchase announcement is also good news from a business point of view, of course. Several people I have talked to have wondered whether Willow Garage has a viable business model. The company was founded -- and reportedly it's still financially supported -- by Scott Hassan, a wealthy former Google architect who became a robotics enthusiast. But Willow Garage's President and CEO Steve Cousins said early this year that he expects the company to make money.

Willow Garage said in a statement that one PR2 has already arrived at Samsung Electronics, which will use it to enhance its existing robotics R&D program.

Another PR2 was delivered to Joshua R. Smith, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The PR2 heading to France will reside at LAAS-CNRS's Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Group, headed by Rachid Alami, who plans to use the robot to develop systems for human assistance, such as housekeeping for seniors.

And at George Washington University, Evan Drumwright, a professor of computer science, is the new owner of a PR2. His focus is on discovering ways to get robots to autonomously perform occupational tasks.

Here's a video showing robots using ROS:

Images and video: Willow Garage

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