May 22, 2012      

Since their introduction in the 1960s, it has become hard to imagine industry without robots. Their strengths: power, quickness and stamina. Their limitation: they can only flex their muscles in separate cells for safety reasons in most cases. The future: an increasing number of safety barriers will fall. The reason is that modern technology is providing such a high degree of safety that people and robots can work hand-in-hand. Visitors to AUTOMATICA 2012 can expect to obtain an overview of the far-reaching perspectives regarding safe human-robot cooperation with the event?s focus on solution-based robotics.

The further development of “safe robots” enables space-saving implementation. In many cases, former cell concepts requiring robots to be sequestered in separate rooms with ?intruder sensing? technology can be abolished. This opens the door to new applications involving people and robots, for example, in installation, medical technology and the service sector.

?Man-robot cooperation makes it possible to combine the strengths of people and robots and consequently to automate processes, which were previously not economically feasible.?Martin Hagele, Department Head of Robot Systems, Fraunhofer Institute(IPA)

The way into industrial practice is also being smoothed by the norm ISO 10218-1 with respect to the safety aspects of man-robot cooperation. It contains safety requirements for industrial robots, so that people and robots can work together in a defined work area without spatial separation requiring safety barriers or light grids.

People and robots work together

The Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology and Automation (IPA) in Stuttgart is one of the most active research institutes dealing with the safety aspects of human-robot cooperation. Martin Hagele, Department Head of Robot Systems, believes that enormous potential has become available with the standard: ?Man-robot cooperation makes it possible to combine the strengths of people and robots and consequently to automate processes, which were previously not economically feasible. People have high cognitive skills, are creative and can adapt quickly to complex situations. On the other hand, robots have untiring repetitive accuracy, even when there are heavy loads. Thanks to cooperation, workplaces can be designed ergonomically and costs can be reduced overall thanks to higher degrees of automation.”

Pioneers in safe Human-Robot Cooperation

The German Center for Air and Space Travel (DLR) has made human-robot cooperation central to their work in robotics; for example, they have conducted biomechanical/medical injury investigations with the goal of developing a ?standardized crash test procedure? for robots similar to the automobile sector. One highlight of the institute is a lightweight construction robot with yielding technology, which represents successful innovation with human safety in mind.

KUKA, in collaboration with DLR, developed the technology further into a product for the research world. KUKA?S robot (Kuka LBR IV) was constructed with lightweight aluminum and performed impressively in a pilot application for axle gear mounting at Mercedes-Benz.

ABB?s newest FRIDA (Friendly Robot for Industrial Dual Arm Assembly) is another human-friendly robot to be featured at AUTOMATICA 2012. FRIDA is an easily portable and padded dual-arm unit, with the same shape and range as a small adult. It can also be connected to cameras to give it optical awareness. Units do not require an enclosed work area and can be easily installed to work side-by-side with humans. FRIDA is part of ABB?s research into new solutions for small-parts assembly?a booming industry sector thanks to the miniaturization of consumer electronics. The unit was purposefully designed to be light colored and approachable, and won the red dot ?best of the best? design concept award in 2011.

Festo is another company making progress in human cooperative robotics. Festo?s ?Bionic Handling Assistant? is a light, freely movable ?third hand? system whose design was inspired by the elephant?s trunk. Its extension and range of motion capabilities distinguish it even from its natural counterpart. Units are made of plastic rather than metal and its yielding technology distinguishes it from other robots. Utilizing compressed air control technology guarantees that even if the electronic or control system should fail, the robot?s inherent yielding properties will come into play.

Room for Innovation

AUTOMATICA 2012 offers a platform for further collaboration and discussion of human-robot cooperation. The limits of safety concepts customary on the market today must be overcome with new solutions especially regarding the required safety control technology. At AUTOMATICA 2012 and going forward, developments in sensor technology such as 3-D image acquisition systems and the use of force/torque sensors will be obvious trends as a new generation of human-friendly assistance systems emerges.