Advances in human-machine interfaces will play an essential role in extending human capabilities, particularly within industrial and manufacturing settings, and extending to healthcare, entertainment, and beyond. This requires a component of non-human discipline, reliable repeatability, and high precision in the form of advanced robotics delivered by the increasing developments in cobotics. This article looks at how cobots combined with mobile robots can expand the potential of collaborative robots both in terms of their ability to work closely alongside humans as well as their increasing independent work abilities in complex environments.
Robots are finite state machines that replicate complex human actions and usually work in predefined environments; think giant industrial robots that operate safely behind safety barriers. Cobots (Collaborative Robots) are machines that enhance and complement complex human tasks by working in concert with human(s). This relationship translates into an open (non-finite) system with stochastic input from the human co-worker. The most advanced cobots can predict human actions, perform high-precision moves, and possess quick and reliable failsafe mechanisms. The ability to predict and perform complex human actions usually requires the cobot control systems to be based on some predictive/ intelligent model to handle and process the complex relationships between the astronomical number of data points in real-time.
The Neura Robotics ecosystem
Neura Robotics has developed a cobot ecosystem that aims to elevate the interaction between humans and machines. At the core of the robotic suite is MAiRA (Multi-Sensing Intelligent Robotic Assistant), an advanced cobot designed to be used in a host of applications from logistics to medicine, machine tending to coworking. You can read more about the specific technical details of MAiRA in our previous article.
Several factors distinguish MAiRA from its cobot rivals. The first is its elevated cognitive function that enables accurate human action prediction and interaction. Additionally, MAiRA has the ability to be programmed via various methods like its extensive Python API, gesture control, voice commands, and an external Touchscreen teaching pendant. It can also be programmed by no-code methods like zero-gravity movement recording, smart-skin-based interface, and a touch-sensitive HMI pad on the head which translates into high precision training with minimal effort. The cobot can be quickly programmed by the very workers it is collaborating with on the factory floor with ease. The cognitive abilities make MAiRA an intuitive machine to work with while being safe and reliable. This is a critical factor in determining the effectiveness of the system as a human collaborative system and seamless integration with existing setups.
Another one of MAiRA’s salient features is its safety system - it can detect the presence of humans in a 3 meters radius and has a collision-avoidance system. The speed of the cobot’s movements is controlled based on its distance to humans. These safety systems can be enhanced with cartesian volume avoidance commands. The cobot has been designed so that there is no wire harnessed or hung outside of the body shell. The axis joints are lined with programmable status LEDs; all this is packaged in a minimalist form factor with rounded corners and edges, essential to the collaborative usage of the cobots.
Adding mobility to MAiRA
While all of these credentials are impressive on their own, MAiRA’s abilities and use cases expand when combined with another key figure from the Neura family. MAV (Multi-Sensing Autonomous) is an intelligent mobility platform that can safely locate and transport objects of a total weight of up to 1.5 tons. The indoor intralogistics vehicle is designed for transforming conventional industrial settings such as moving assembly lines and thus is designed in the standard pallet form factor. It has a high positional accuracy of +/- 5mm and has four lifting units, each of 4000N capacity. It is driven by a differential drive motor powered by a 48VDC/ 120Ah battery that provides up to 10 hours of operating time. It can be fully charged in an hour via wireless charging, reducing the need for frequent human interventions.
MAiRA can be combined with MAV to enable the cobot to perform a variety of tasks that benefit from both mobility and precision. For example, a MAiRA combined with MAV could carry parts between manufacturing processes on a production floor, improving the quality of work and efficiency for existing employees, and increasing safety. MAiRA and MAV can collaborate between themselves, working together to solve complex stacking logistics on the floor in a supermarket or similar setting. Additionally, multiple MAVs can be integrated to form a continuous fleet with redundancies that assure uninterrupted operations in the facility using fleet monitoring and management software.
The MAV has a two-zone touchless human safety and speed control that enables seamless integration in human-robot collaborative facilities. It is equipped with Dynamic Obstacle Bypass and Trajectory Replanning software for optimal performance, along with Dynamic Mapping tools to understand the work environment. The MAV has an extensive suite of inputs like - 3D RGB cameras, sound inputs, proximity sensors, and laser scanners that enables safe human detection and pallet identification. These combine to allow MAV to work alone, or with MAiRA to become a genuine team member within a logistics setting. Unlike ‘dumb’ logistics robots which require either obstacle-free spaces, preprogrammed pathlines, or constant supervision MAV can sense and understand its environment, adapt to obstacles, and anticipate human movement. Like the rest of the Neura product lineup, it also has a rich API for 3rd party integration and low-level sensor and hardware access. The sides of the MAV are equipped with programmable LED status indicators, and all four corners of the vehicle have emergency stop buttons. It also has voice and gesture control for easy programming as well as computer-based software.
Where MAV and MAiRA make radical change
Industry 4.0 is the next phase of advancement in manufacturing. Industry 4.0 heralds in a new manufacturing era brought about by the convergence of technologies that enable continuous data gathering and employment of artificial intelligence in a networked environment. Industry 4.0 is a vision within a framework characterized by the bridging of physical assets and digital technologies.
Key aspects of Industry 4.0 include big data, IoT, Augmented and virtual reality, and robotics. The first intelligent robotics made their mark augmenting human ability by taking over heavy and repetitive tasks. They are now capable of much more, as described in our previous review of MAiRA. Robots with true autonomous mobility are an essential element of reaching the possible quality of industry 4.0. Whereas before robots were instructed, cobots such as MAiRA can learn from their environment and feed this accumulated data back into their workflows and environments. Continuous learning based on data will ensure that the goals of Industry 4.0, such as hyper customizability, agility, and responsive manufacturing, are extended and enhanced.
Medical and surgical
A MAiRA robot, acting as a cobot nurse has the ability to vaccinate populations without posing the risk of spreading disease, without fatigue, and with continuous precision. But this task, while in demand at this moment of the Coronavirus pandemic, pales into insignificance compared to the true medical capabilities that MAiRA can achieve. For example, dentistry procedures such as inserting crowns and caps and routine, but highly precise surgeries such as minimally invasive surgery are within MAiRA’s command. Not only does this possibly make medical treatment more precise it can also ultimately lower the cost and increase access.
While it’s clear that the combination of MAV and MAiRA has massive potential in many applications, one area where the mobile robot can make a serious social and economic impact is in warehouse logistics. Palletizing and packaging jobs are polarized across the industries - there are highly automated sectors that have mechanized the processes, and there are industries with human-only packaging processes where products are too fragile or complex for machines to handle; or where the economics of cheap human labor beat out better automated systems. Cognitive mobile robotic systems, such as combined MAV and MAiRA will make warehousing a more humane industry by employing mobile cobots in these facilities whilst at the same time increasing warehouse and shipment capacity. These systems will become an essential aid in enhancing human qualities not as tools but as an extension of the users.
More intelligence and more mobility
The abilities of intelligent robots such as MAiRA are clearly going to make a huge impact no matter where they are deployed. But the true potential of cobots combined with mobility is really only just beginning. Future iterations of these industry-leading examples will include advanced computer vision, increased edge computing capabilities that enable full voice command without the cloud, and more extensive mobility options, including lighter, smaller, and more agile bases. The incremental steps of innovation in cobotics are strides towards cleaner, more efficient, and more ambitious manufacturing, medical, and supply chain systems.