February 12, 2009      

Summary: Energid and Mobile Robots partner to provide autonomous navigation and mapping, machine vision and advanced robotic manipulation into a single mobile platform code-named Dactyl. This seemingly innocuous event announcement illustrates multiple trends in the robotics space and describes a new system that allows for ‘mobile manipulation.’

Taken at one level, robots for professional use (to distinguish them from consumer robotics) fall into two camps—arm based systems and mobile platform based systems. 

The armed systems are best represented by the typical industrial robot.  Housed in caged workcells for employee protection and bolted to the factory floor, these fixed-based articulated manipulators, over 40 years in development, have become increasingly sophisticated, becoming much more flexible and capable of fine motor control.  Also, once limited to working with precisely placed objects in highly structured environments, modern systems can now use vision instead of positioning for industrial robot control, allowing these robotic systems to perform functions of increasing complexity.

The second general class of professional service robots consists of platform based systems.  In fact most mobile robots today are teleoperated platforms that carry some type of payload—cameras, sensors, sweepers and so on.  Teleoperated systems, too, have advanced tremendously.  For example, over time human factors issues have been  addressed so that robotics are easier to drive. 

However, most teleoperated systems also rely on human eyes (through a view screen) for visual sensing.  What is lacking in these systems is a degree of mobile autonomy, which would make the systems much more flexible and provide for greater capabilities.

Teleoperated systems often include an arm or manipulator of some sort.  With each passing year the arms exhibit improvements, but they still require the operator to drive the platform to the work site using the onboard cameras and base system monitor, and then working the manipulator.  What the Energid and Mobile Robots’ announcement signifies is a third class of professional service robot that combines autonomy, advanced machine vision and complex manipulation. 

The Dactyl system, which combines Energid Technologies’ Actin arm and camera control software with Mobile Robots’ PatrolBot platform and MobileEyes remote monitoring and control system, can autonomously generate maps of its working environment and navigate that environment, as well as coordinate the motion of both the arm and the platform to carry out tasks that would be difficult, if not impossible for the typical teleoperated system.

Dan Kara