Robobusiness Is Back And Better Than Ever

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Robobusiness 2012 was back in Pittsburgh this week and it is better than ever. Terry Knight and I did a number of video interviews that will be up on Engineering TV soon and I will add a link here too.

Robots and robot technology was everywhere. Adept Technology AT400 (Fig. 1) was running around for two days on its own. The autonomous robot was being friendly and even brought cold beers to attendees the first evening while dinner was served. It uses a laser range finder so it did not run over anyone's toes.

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Figure 1. Have to use a stock photo of Adept Technology's AT400 robotic platform. The one at Robobusiness was carrying a cooler with beer. Can't grab one and take a picture at the same time.

Adept Technology's AT400 was just one of many commercial robots on display. Robots are not just for assembly lines and battlefields. These robots are saving money and they are handling chores so people can concentrate on more important jobs.

InTouch Health and iRobot were showing off their RP-VITA (Fig. 2) telepresence robot that targets medical applications. The demo was done using the hotel's own network to highlight that nothing special is required for its operation.

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Figure 2. InTouch Health and iRobot developed the RP-VITA telepresence robot for telemedicine applications. The demo at the show highlighted the autonomous movement and video conference operation using the hotel network.

The RP-VITA highlights the trend to autonomous and semiautonomous operation. Users can drive the robot explicitly using a joystick or tablet but most will simply select a waypoint and let the robot do the work. Like other robots it has sensors that detect obstacles including people allowing the robot to avoid these.

The robot can be used by a doctor to do their rounds remotely. The demo they presented used the RP-VITA to explain that the locations for the robot to view each patient can be preprogrammed so moving to a new patient is just a click away. The robot has a camera with a 200x zoom allowing close examination of small areas such as a patient's eye. There is a laser pointer so the remote user can designate locations to local personel.

Rethink Robotics's Baxter (Fig. 3) uses behavior-based programming to implement an inexpensive and easy to use robot that is user friendly. It has counterbalanced arms so its movements do not have to inflict damage on someone who might be in the robot's operational area. There are sensors to prevent this as well including infrared range finders and cameras in each hand.

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Figure 3. Baxter is a human friendly robot that uses behavior based programming and an array of sensors that allow fast training and safe operation.

You need to watch the video to see how easy it is to program the system. It takes minutes for simple chores. This is important because the robot is designed for low speed assembly lines. The system is so easy to use that setting up ad hoc procedures can be changed quickly.

I also talked with Coroware's Lloyd Spencer about the Corobot (Fig. 4) and the robot software frameworks that it runs. These include ROS (robot operating system) and Microsoft's Robotic Studio 4.

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Figure 4. Coroware's Corobot supports ROS (robot operating system) and Microsoft's Robotic Studio 4.

A number of interesting points came out of our discussion. One observation was that Microsoft's offering is popular with teachers for training students in robotics. Of course, the Lego Mindstorms is another platform that is popular as well.

ROS has taken over the robot research community. The ability to exchange services and applications has lead to rapid growth in shared research.

Aethon had a platform similar to Adept but Aethon's robot TUG (Fig. 5) is designed to pull around other carts. It has been deployed in a range of hospitals like Pittsburgh's UPMC.

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Figure 5. Aethon's robots are being used at UPMC delivery food, medicine and laundry. The robots are autonomous and have their own elevator.

UPMC is using the robots to delivery a range of services and objects from food to laundry. It has improved service, reduced response time and made most jobs easier. It can text a person's smartphone to tell them it is on the way and another when it arrives. Typically it leaves the cart and its contents before returning for another. The robots have their own elevators and the doors have been set up so the robots can automatically open them. This is actually pretty easy since most doors were automatic already. It was simply a matter of adding a wireless control to the mix.

There was a lot more at the show and I even had a chance to check out a few sessions this trip. I'll try to get some of that up in a later article that I will link to this one. In the mean time, check out the Engineering TV trade show section for Robobusiness 2012.

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William Wong

Bill Wong covers Digital, Embedded, Systems and Software topics at Electronic Design. He writes a number of columns, including Lab Bench and alt.embedded, plus Bill's Workbench hands-on column....
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