2011

Innovation in Smart Robotics

altThe computational components alone, however, will not simplify the development of robotics applications. According to Dr. David Barrett, roboticist and professor at Olin College, “The robotics industry badly needs an industrial- grade, hardened, richly supported software development system to build intelligent, autonomous, mobile robots that can sense, think, and act in the complex real world around them.” In other words, industry needs a software tool that abstracts the complexity of these interconnected high-performance computational devices and provides ready-touse building blocks for the most common tasks in robotics applications such as sensor connectivity, navigation, localization, path planning, obstacle avoidance, or vision-guided motion.

Over the last couple of years, industry and the research community developed these types of tools in the form of opensource software packages like Willow Garages Robot Operating System (ROS) or commercial tools like NI LabVIEW Robotics, a graphical system design tool that supports different models of computation for the implementation of robotics applications and makes it possible to deploy to different targets such as multicore processors, real-time processors, or FPGAs. With these tools, engineers are ready to adopt robotics technology for the next generation of their products, similar to the Loccioni engineers, who were able to come up with a revolutionary concept for the lifecycle test of white goods.

Sensors and Batteries

Besides embedded control systems and high-productivity software tools, sensors and sensor connectivity play a key role; thus, it is not surprising that the current proliferation of sensors is shaking up the robotics industry. The availability of compact MEMS (microelectromechanical system) sensors that are heavily used in commercial products such as smart phones or controllers for entertainment consoles have led to a price erosion for accel - erometers, gyro sensors, and even more standard sensors including light, pressure, or temperature. But it is not solely about price. The MEMS technology also simplifies the processing of sensor information because the devices include signal conditioning and translate the sensor information into useful data that is sent back via standard protocols such as I2C.

The reuse of commercial technologies sometimes goes even further. Rather than capitalizing on price advantages for components used in commercial products, the robotics industry adapts the commercial product directly. USB cameras or the popular Kinect controller from Microsoft are good examples that demonstrate this trend. Recently, this commercial product made it possible for many robotic systems to recognize and locate objects in a 3D space at a significantly lower cost than previous solutions.

altThe last key area of innovation to deploy robots to the field is the area of energy efficiency and battery technology. Operated in a research laboratory, robotic systems usually stay connected to a power source. While this might work for some application areas, there are many use cases of robotics where the autonomous operation requires independent energy sources, often in the form of batteries. Implementing energy efficient operation of the robot actuators and using low-power embedded control systems can help reduce energy consumption. At the same time, there has been a lot of innovation in battery technology, which is driven by the focus of the automotive industry on alternative energy sources for modern vehicles and the increasing use of mobile devices like laptops, tablets, and smart phones. The robotics industry can capitalize on the heavy investment of global players such as Toyota, GM, Apple, or Samsung.

All of these technologies were essential components in the design and deployment of MoDiBot to the first lifecycle test facility. Robotic technology allowed the manufacturer to perform automated testing of dozens of devices at the same time and around the clock. The same technologies that enabled Loccioni to develop their revolutionary test system will help to grow the adoption of smarter robots in industrial and commercial applications, and will transform robotics technology into a commodity engineering discipline rather than simply a research exercise. Ultimately, this will make it possible for robots to leave the laboratory and settle into our everyday lives.

This article was written by Christian Fritz, Senior Product Manager for Advanced Machine Control and Robotics at National Instruments in Austin, TX. For more information, visit http://info.hotims.com/34458-122

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