After turning the dial to heavy-duty and pushing the start button, Modi waits for the click that indicates that the interlock mechanism successfully locked the door of the washing machine. Shortly after, the water starts to flow and the machine indicates that the soak and scour phase is in progress. Now it’s time for Modi to move on to the next washing machine.

Modi is short for MoDiBot, or Mobile Diagnosis Robot, an autonomous test platform for household appliance testing, developed by engineers at Loccioni, a leading provider of test, measurement, and automation solutions in Italy. MoDiBot works in a test laboratory, allowing scientists and researchers to apply new technologies and validate the algorithms and applications of their autonomous systems to put them on the touchstone for adoption in the lifecycle test laboratories of white goods manufacturers around the world.

Without a doubt, robotics technology is an emerging priority. While in the past, robots were mainly used for repetitive tasks in industrial manufacturing, today they play an important role in applications characterized with one of the 3 Ds: dull, dirty, or dangerous. Thus, it is no surprise that robotic technology is adopted for applications in homeland security, inspection, exploration, healthcare, logistics, and even the entertainment industry.

MoDiBot at work.

Dr. Cristina Cristalli, Director of the Research for Innovation Group at Loccioni, focuses on robots for mobile testing and their flexibility and multifunctionality. According to Dr. Cristalli, robotics is an excellent way to move and place sensors and measurement equipment, opening a new perspective for the automation of reliability testing. While there are some challenges, most of the robotics systems used across industries and application areas share the same core components and architectural approach. The combination of one or more robotic manipulators (arms) mounted on top of an autonomous platform is a common mechanical solution. Based on this combination, the industrial and research communities have developed many application-specific variations over the last few decades; however, robots are far from being engrained in our everyday life, and robotics technology has not been adopted at the same rate as information technologies or RF technology. So, what are the technologies that pave the way for robots out of the laboratory?

A significant part of the innovation takes place in the “smarts”of the robot, where a common architecture includes a network of interconnected embedded systems. Some of these embedded systems perform small and dedicated tasks such as battery management, motor control, or sensor fusion, and are based on lower-footprint programmable logic devices (PLDs) and microprocessors. Additionally, most robotic systems contain one or more high-performance embedded systems that use the latest processor technology to execute mission- critical tasks, ensure safety, perform image processing, and run advanced control algorithms. Overall, robots are complex mechatronic systems, and programming them often requires a large team of PhD-level experts.

Computing Performance

Another question is what technologies are driving robotics innovation and will transform robotics into a standard engineering discipline, allowing a broader adoption. The big innovations are in the embedded control systems, software tools, sensor technology, and battery and energy efficiency technology. No matter how complex the hardware architecture might be, Sense, Think, and Act is a common paradigm to implement innovative robotic applications.

A big impact on the adoption of robotics comes through the ever increasing processor performance. Only recently available in desktop PCs, powerful multicore-processors have been adapted for embedded systems. These processors are attractive for robotics systems because lower-footprint embedded systems comply with the tight power, space, and weight constraints of the robotics industry. Powered by real-time operating systems, they are capable of executing many of the mission-critical tasks, close control loops, and can perform I/O operations and communicate with other devices. Additionally, the robotics industry is adapting PLDs such as Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) for tasks that require custom hardware, extreme speed and reliability, or parallel execution. These off-the-shelf systems come equipped with a set of middleware and drivers to abstract the complexity of the hardware, and do not require embedded design expertise. Other systems, like the National Instruments NI CompactRIO, allow customers to add I/O, communication, motion, and vision capabilities based on their application requirements and start working on their software development right away.

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the September, 2011 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

Read more articles from the archives here.