The August 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

KIT's ARMAR-6 Humanoid Will Help Humans Fix Other Robots

Need a hand? This humanoid robot can help

3 min read
ARMAR-6 robot
Image: KIT

While it may be a bit premature to expect collaborative humanoid robots to be doing anything useful in a warehouse environment, the only way we’re going to make it happen is by encouraging the difficult transition between research labs and industry. The European Union is doing a pretty good job of providing support for things like this through its Horizon 2020 program, and one of the projects it’s supporting is called SecondHands, intended to “design a robot that can offer help to a maintenance technician in a pro-active manner… as a second pair of hands that can assist the technician when he/she is in need of help.”

SecondHands is a collaboration between Ocado (a U.K. company that operates highly automated warehouses), Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (which has a bunch of experience building capable humanoid robots), and other research institutions including EPFL, UCL, and Sapienza University of Rome.

Together, they’re using the first prototype of the SecondHands collaborative robot, which also happens to be the sixth version of ARMAR, and one that’s ready (we hope) to do something practical. ARMAR was created by Professor Tamim Asfour and his team at the High Performance Humanoid Technologies Lab (H²T) at KIT’s Institute for Anthropomatics and Robotics.

What Ocado is looking for is a robot that can help a human perform maintenance on the automated systems that make up its warehouses. This is a good place for a robot to start to learn how to be helpful, because it’s a semistructured environment, working with a trained human, doing tasks that are fairly predictable. The robot wouldn’t need to take point on any of these tasks; it would be more of an assistant, trying to cooperate with the human to make them more efficient.

Rather than waiting for the human to say, “Hey, can you hand me that hammer,” the robot will recognize when the hammer is necessary, and offer it before the human asks.

Being able to assist a human like this is challenging, but it’s also a problem that’s relatively well-defined. According to Ocado, “in essence the robot will know what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, in a manner that a human can depend on.”

In the context of a maintenance task, for example, the robot should be able to proactively recognize what’s going on, and understand what exactly the human worker is trying to do. Then it can anticipate critical points at which the human might need assistance, and offer help without being explicitly directed. Rather than waiting for the human to say, “Hey, can you hand me that hammer,” the robot will recognize when the hammer is necessary, and offer it before the human asks.

In addition, the robot will be able to do what robots do best: “augment the humans’ capabilities by completing tasks that require a level of precision or physical strength that are not available to human workers.” And of course it has to do all of these things autonomously and safely around people in an active warehouse.

ARMAR-6ARMAR-6, created at the High Performance Humanoid Technologies Lab (H²T) at KIT’s Institute for Anthropomatics and Robotics.Image: KIT

Making this work effectively requires, among other things, visual scene perception with human action recognition, task planning and execution with continuous monitoring, computer vision techniques for 3D human-pose estimation, human-robot physical interaction with bi-manipulation, and more. All of these areas have been researched robustly in the past, but the cool thing (and the challenging thing) about SecondHands is stuffing them all into one robot that can put them together in a useful way.

The one robot that’s going to have to try and make all of this work is ARMAR-6, the latest generation in KIT’s humanoid robot family. The first ARMAR was built in 1999 (!), and since then, KIT has been improving on it every few years. ARMAR-6 features:

  • Two 8-DoF torque-controlled arms with position and torque sensing; 
  • Two 6-DoF force torque sensors in the wrists; 
  • Two underactuated 5-finger hands; 
  • Holonomic mobile base; 
  • Telescopic torso joint; 
  • 2-DoF head with two stereo camera systems and an RGB-D sensor;
  • Integrated sensor-actuator-controller units.

This is a mostly standard kit for a capable, collaborative mobile robot these days, which means that the magic is going to come primarily from ARMAR’s software. The prototype of the robot presented last week is really just the start: As you can see from the end of the video, ARMAR doesn’t yet seem to have reached the point where it can grasp objects reliably. The SecondHands vision for what the robot will be able to accomplish by 2020 (helping out with real maintenance tasks inside an operating Ocado warehouse) may seem optimistic, but there’s nothing wrong with that—goals like these that involve stretching technology until it breaks have proven to be one of the most effective ways of advancing practical robotics, and they’re definitely some of the most fun to watch.

[ SecondHands ]

The Conversation (0)

How Robots Can Help Us Act and Feel Younger

Toyota’s Gill Pratt on enhancing independence in old age

10 min read
An illustration of a woman making a salad with robotic arms around her holding vegetables and other salad ingredients.
Dan Page
Blue

By 2050, the global population aged 65 or more will be nearly double what it is today. The number of people over the age of 80 will triple, approaching half a billion. Supporting an aging population is a worldwide concern, but this demographic shift is especially pronounced in Japan, where more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older by midcentury.

Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which was established by Toyota Motor Corp. in 2015 to explore autonomous cars, robotics, and “human amplification technologies,” has also been focusing a significant portion of its research on ways to help older people maintain their health, happiness, and independence as long as possible. While an important goal in itself, improving self-sufficiency for the elderly also reduces the amount of support they need from society more broadly. And without technological help, sustaining this population in an effective and dignified manner will grow increasingly difficult—first in Japan, but globally soon after.

Keep Reading ↓Show less