Translating Europe’s robotics research prowess into service and industrial applications can be a challenge. Martin Haegele has spent his career meeting that challenge.
Haegele received a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Stuttgart and an M.S. in mechanical engineering from the George Washington University.
In 1989, inspired by Joseph Engelberger’s book Robotics in Service, Haegele led a German study on the market potential of service robots.
He supervised the development of a fuel-refilling robot and several generations of mobile robots intended for museums, shopping centers, and homes.
In addition, Haegele coordinated many publicly funded research projects to develop service and industrial robots. He coordinated two large-scale European initiatives, SMErobot and SMErobotics, for the creation of robots suitable for small and midsize enterprises.
Since 1993, Haegele has been head of the Robot and Assistive Systems Department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (Fraunhofer IPA). He is also director of the Intelligent Automation and Clean Manufacturing Division and a member of the board at Fraunhofer IPA.
Haegele has published more than 80 papers and book chapters and holds four patents. He is a 2007 recipient of the Joseph Engelberger Award and is active in the International Federation of Robotics and the euRobotics Association.
Joanne Pransky, associate editor of Industrial Robot, recently spoke with Haegele about his projects and his views on the European robotics industry’s prospects.
This interview is available for free to Robotics Business Review readers until Sept. 30, 2018.
Pransky: Of all the robot projects you have worked on, what has been your favorite?
Haegele: I enjoyed managing the two large-scale European initiatives SMErobot and SMErobotics. However, my favorite project is the refueling robot. In 1991, Fraunhofer IPA was approached by a consortium consisting of ARAL, a German fuel and gas station brand; Daimler; and BMW to develop a robot for liquid hydrogen refueling of automobiles.
The project was motivated by the partners’ assumption that by 2010, fuel cells would be the dominant energy converter for automobiles and cold liquid hydrogen (at some -260°C) should not be dispensed manually.
The main requirement was that the robot can fully refuel almost any car automatically in less than three minutes while the passengers remain sitting in the car.
In addition, ARAL insisted that the robot design should allow the dispensing of five grades of mineral oil fuels.
We therefore came up with a radical design: After the car pulls into the forecourt and the terminal takes the driver’s order, the robot emerges from underneath the plinth, approaches and opens the tank flap and inserts the nozzle into a special tank cap.
In 1995, the first robot, based on Reis RV16 components, was publicly unveiled at Fraunhofer IPA. More pilot installations followed for dispensing hydrogen or mineral oil fuels.
Unfortunately, the last hydrogen refueling robot at Munich Airport was dismantled more than 10 years ago, partly due to fading interest in hydrogen technology. The robot, which is still on display at Fraunhofer IPA, represents several innovations.
Since it operated without fences in public environments, its safety design consisted of the brand-new SICK laser scanners, redundant controllers and joint angle measurement. This safety configuration is now common in human-robot cooperation.
Furthermore, the robot used visual servoing for docking on the car’s flap and cap while moving.
Pransky: Can you give us an example of how Fraunhofer IPA works as a research and manufacturing organization for a new product, such as the Care-O-bot? In other words, can you explain how the Care-O-bot went from inception to a company via Fraunhofer IPA under your leadership?
Haegele: Industrial contract research is the main funding source of Fraunhofer, which means we are typically contacted by industry to carry out feasibility tests of potential robot applications, to investigate manufacturing processes, or implement and optimize robot workcells on the shop floor.
Furthermore, we develop robot components in hardware or software and design service robot systems and applications.
In this regard, Care-O-bot is a special case, as it was undertaken by Fraunhofer IPA as a large experiment for developing and demonstrating new robot technologies.
In fact, the Care-O-bot experiment was initiated by Joseph Engelberger. Around 1995, he traveled the world to motivate teams such as ours to embark on a mission towards designing the “Elderly Care Giver,” a personal robot assistant for everyday tasks.
Fraunhofer IPA launched an internal research project, which resulted in the presentation of Care-O-bot 1 at the Hanover Trade Fair in 1998. I still recall Joe’s disappointment: no hands and no 3D vision but a fancy design, which obviously aimed at hiding Care-O-bot’s shortcomings with regard to manipulation capabilities.
However, the mobile platform was a success, as we could derive several applications from it, such as several mobile robot designs for museums and logistics.
In 2002, the second generation of Care-O-bot finally featured a compact arm and 3D vision, but it was clear that safe and versatile arms and hands would be a challenge for years to come.
With sponsorship by Schunk, the third generation of Care-O-bot, introduced at Automatica 2008, was designed from a strictly functional and user-centered point of view. Some 15 units were built and used by various research labs worldwide.
During that time, we discovered that we could not develop by ourselves all the required software to exploit the robot’s kinematic capabilities. We met other teams facing similar challenges of limited software engineering resources, which resulted in our engagement in expanding the open-source robot software system ROS.
The fourth generation Care-O-bot, introduced in 2014, aimed at designing an integrated system which addressed a number of innovations such as modularity, low cost by making use of new manufacturing processes, and advanced human-user interaction.
[Approximately another] 15 systems were built, and the intellectual property (IP) generated by almost over 20 years of research was recently licensed to Mojin Robotics, a new startup by former IPA colleagues.
Overall, the Care-O-bot experiment was instrumental for us to build up technical expertise in almost every robotic domain.
Currently, we focus on creating advanced use cases and pilot applications based on the now-commercial Care-O-bot hardware.
Pransky: What is the greatest challenge facing Europe’s robotics industry today?
Haegele: One challenge is to translate Europe’s immense research competence into maximum socio-economic impact which brings wealth, comfort, and well-being to every citizen. Make robotics an enabler of agile industrial manufacturing, especially in small and medium-sized enterprises, and create compelling service robotics applications in all relevant fields, ranging from agriculture via health to logistics.
The European Public-Private Partnership in Robotics — i.e., the European robotics industry, research, academia, and the European Commission — is well aware of this challenge.
As an example to address this challenge, the current call for “digital innovation hubs” within the EU-Horizon 2020 work program aims at supporting the digitization of industry through robotics on a large scale.
Last but not least: Europe has a start-up scene in robotics, which still has significant potential for growth. Therefore, a further challenge is to mobilize young researchers to engage in startup activities and to secure their companies’ sustainability.