September 15, 2015      

Building on an already strong industrial automation base, Germany is now positioning itself to become a major player in the next wave of robotics innovation. German robotics is already on a roll.

Last June, trade group VDMA Robotics + Automation reported that the nation’s robotics and automation sector set a record increase of 9 percent to 11.4 billion euros ($12.9 billion) in 2014.

Robotics and automation technologies have improved the economy and created jobs, and people who fear that robots may steal jobs shouldn’t worry, noted Patrick Schwarzkopf, Robotics + Automation’s managing director.

“Prospects are good that the industry will reach the turnover mark of 12 billion euros [$13.6 billion] by the end of the year,” added Hans-Dieter Baumtrog, VDMA Robotics + Automation’s chairman. Germany, Canada, and South Korea will gain the most from industrial automation by 2025 because of increased productivity, predicts the Boston Consulting Group.

While Germany remains a leader in industrial robot manufacturing and development, researchers at various institutions there are now turning their attention toward potentially lucrative new fields, including healthcare, personal service, search and rescue (SAR), cognitive, and musculoskeletal robotics.

German robotics includes industry giant

Although Germany is home to scores of robotics companies, all are dwarfed by manufacturer KUKA Robotics Corp. It is one of the industrial robotics industry’s Big Four players, along with ABB Ltd., FANUC Corp., and Yaskawa Electric Corp.

KUKA has a lengthy robotics track record. In 1973, the company created Famukus, the first industrial robot featuring six electromechanically driven axes. In 1996, KUKA made a giant leap forward in industrial robot development when it introduced the first PC-based controller. The development marked the dawn of mechatronics, characterized by the precise interaction of software, controller, and mechanical systems.

Over the years, KUKA has played a major role in expanding the use of industrial robots in fields beyond the automotive sector. By making steady advancements in both robot and control technology, KUKA has brought robots to an array of fresh markets, including foodstuffs, plastics, metalworking, foundry, electronics, medical technology, and the entertainment industry.

Perhaps best known for its bright orange robots, KUKA also operates as a systems integrator for tools and customized mechanical engineering. The company also helps customers automate individual production processes and integrate individual production steps into fully automatic systems. Its KUKA AG division serves companies in the aerospace sector, solar technology, and metalworking industries.

KUKA last year bought Swiss automation company Swisslog, adding mobility to its already extensive product line. KUKA also acquired Reis Robotics, a competing German industrial robots manufacturer with a factory in China. KUKA, meanwhile, opened its own factory in Shanghai and now, with the addition of the Reis facility, operates two robot manufacturing facilities in China.

The Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics' ROboMObil

The ROboMObil is a concept vehicle based on the intelligent central control of four wheel robots.

Universities develop robot helpers

Germany has a deep base of academic researchers investigating virtually all aspects of robotics innovation. Over a dozen major universities and other academic institutions are now engaged in various aspects of robotics research.

The Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, a branch of the German Aerospace Center, is developing various types of robots to help people interact safely and efficiently with their surroundings. The robots are designed to operate in areas that are inaccessible or dangerous to humans as well as to support humans in their everyday lives and work.

The institute aims to cover the entire robot development process, including systems analysis, mechanical and electronics design, control systems, sensor design, dynamics simulation, and software architectures. The institute also conducts research on perception and cognition, motion and task planning, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and application development.

One of the institute’s recent creations is ROboMObil, a prototype automated electric vehicle featuring four centrally controlled robot wheels, each integrating a drive motor, braking, and steering capabilities. This approach gives the “electro-mobility vehicle” extended maneuverability, allowing it to be driven sideways, diagonally or even rotated on the spot.

ROboMObil is designed to operate on cramped city streets as well as within space-starved logistics sites. Instead of adapting a conventional vehicle for autonomous driving, the researchers built the ROboMObil from scratch.

Another German research facility investigating an array of robotics is the DFKI Robotics Innovation Center. Founded in 2006, the center focuses on technologies for various challenging and dangerous environments, including space and underwater, as well as safety, mobility, and cognitive robotics.

The center employs a staff of over 100 researchers and support personnel from all around the world, as well as 100 student assistants. The DFKI Robotics Innovation Center works in close cooperation with the Robotics Group at the University of Bremen.

Charlie the robot

Earlier this year, the DFKI Robotics Innovation Center unveiled an ape-like robot named “Charlie,” which was designed to traverse rough terrain. Charlie is equipped with multipoint contact feet and an active, artificial spine. The robot’s front and rear sections are linked together by the system’s flexible spinal structure, which supports movement in six spatial directions.

The DFKI Robotics Innovation Center's Charlie

The DFKI Robotics Innovation Center’s Charlie is designed for enhanced traction and stability in uneven environments.

Charlie’s foot and ankle structures support the system’s movement in terms of traction and stability. The robot incorporates more than 330 individual sensors, most of which are self-contained, enabling it to respond to external disturbances with only minimal delay.

The researchers have studied Charlie walking in a variety of test environments at a wide range of walking speeds on various surfaces and in inclinations ranging from -20 to 20 degrees. The robot is able to shift its center of mass in real time based on the slope it is walking on, and it could someday be used for space exploration.

Since the robot can also stand up on two legs like a human, advanced applications in a bipedal posture may also be possible, such as for using the front extremities for manipulation tasks, according to Frank Kirchner, director of the Robotics Innovation Center at DFKI and head of the Robotics Working Group at the University of Bremen.

Like most German research projects, Charlie’s development benefited from government funding. Charlie was created under the auspices of iStruct (Intelligent Structures for Mobile Robots), a 3.3 million euro ($3.7 million) project funded German Aerospace Center and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.

The project aims to develop biologically inspired robotic systems and structural components offering enhanced mobility. Systems created under the iStruct umbrella are also designed to be as self-contained as possible, relying on built-in sensing, sensor preprocessing, control, and communication systems.

Myorobotics and more

Technical University of Munich is another important German robotics education and research facility. The school’s Robotics and Embedded Systems department offers degree programs ranging from the undergraduate to doctorate levels.

The university’s research primarily focuses on the following four areas:

  • Human-robot interaction/service robotics, including work on the integration of speech, language, vision, and action;
  • Medical robotics, covering manipulator and instrument control for complex surgical procedures;
  • Cognitive robotics, covering topics ranging from sensor models to high-level cognitive skills for navigation and adaptative learning; and
  • Cyber-physical/embedded systems, with special emphasis on fault tolerance and high availability.

One of department’s current initiatives is the Myorobotics project, which aims to improve the quality and reliability of the hardware used to make musculoskeletal robots readily available to researchers working in various robotics fields.

Musculoskeletal robots can provide multiple benefits, particularly in situations where people and robots work together in close proximity, according to the department. Inspired by the mechanics of the human body, a musculoskeletal design makes extensive use of viscous-elastic materials to emulate the muscles and tendons that help to enhance safety, dexterity and adaptivity in uncertain environments. The approach also allows researchers to reduce robot weight and development costs, while simultaneously enhancing design flexibility.

Although several musculoskeletal robot research platforms already exist, they rely on custom-made, complex hardware and software, which inhibits their use beyond academic research. Most of these systems are custom-designed and built by a single research group and are therefore seldom used by people other than the initial developers.

With the help of EU funding, the Myorobotics project aims to make musculoskeletal platforms more widely available by providing a modular design to achieve various types of forms and functionality. These components will be mass-producible and reproducible, using rapid-prototyping techniques, improving cost-effectiveness, and facilitating the transition to the market.

A software toolchain will be offered to allow the assembly of a virtual musculoskeletal robot, the definition of control algorithms and high-level behaviors, the optimization of the controller’s performance and the simulation of its interaction with the environment.

Winning friends

The Robotics and Biology Laboratory at the Technical University of Berlin conducts research in a variety of areas, including the development of robots that excel at object detection, grasping and manipulation. Last May, a team of lab researchers won the first Amazon Picking Challenge, netting a prize of $20,000.

The lab’s robots also excel at making friends in high places. While paying a state visit to Germany last June, the U.K.’s Queen Elizabeth II visited Berlin Technical University, where she was greeted by a Nao robot at the lab. The perky little tabletop robot spun around and saluted the queen, bringing a smile to her majesty’s face.