The Individualization of Robots

Sept. 22, 2011
According to developers of robotic hardware and software applications, industrial robotics are getting more personal.
Pieter Abele was among this year's MIT Technology Review’s “35 Innovators Under 35 (TR 35)” award winners, as was Brian Gerkey of Willow Garage. Pieter and his team at the University of California-Berkeley programmed a robot to learn to perform tasks like folding laundry, without detailed instructions. (Photo by Winnie Wintermeyer, courtesy of Technology Review.)
Brian Gerkey, director of Open Source Development at Willow Garage, also earned TR 35 recognition. The Willow Garage open-source ROS software was used to control the UC Berkeley robot.
A Motoman dual-arm robot. Future versions of this robot may include a “head” that contains cameras and a Kinect device.
Steve Cousins, CEO of Willow Garage.

Willow Garage develops hardware and software for robotic operations — specifically for personal robotic applications that help people to be more productive at work, or at home. Its Robotic Operating System (ROS) is a collection of software libraries and tools to help software developers create robot applications. ROS provides device drivers, visualizers, message-passing functions, package management, and advanced libraries to help application engineers understand camera, video, and 3D data.

ROS is an open-source program, and free to use, change, and commercialize. It is used by a growing number of popular personal service and research robots, including one at the University of California in Berkeley that learned to process a basket of laundry from washing to folding. Dr. Brian Gerkey, director of Open Source Development at Willow Garage, believes ROS will allow entrepreneurs to create new commercial applications for robots, even if they don't have extensive experience or expertise with robotics.

”The goal (of ROS) is to help people who have ideas for what robots can do in the marketplace by providing a common language for robots,” Gerkey said recently, commenting about his Technology Review TR 35 award (see photo).

Today, the industrial robotics industry is confronting the need for modification of production processes due to trends toward individualization of consumer products. This requires handling of robots to be much easier, with greater flexibility and rapidity. Accuracy has to be increased, too.

Thus, there was a great leap forward last week when Yaskawa America's Motoman Robotics Division signed a collaboration agreement with the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to port Willow Garage's ROS to the Motoman line of industrial robots. This is the first authorized porting of ROS to an industrial robot. SwRI plans to develop, demonstrate, and release to the open-source community an interface between Motoman robots and ROS, thereby taking this award-winning software beyond the realm of universities and research and into the world of business.

The Southwest Research Institute is an independent, nonprofit applied research and development organization in San Antonio, Tex., with more than 3,000 employees and an annual research volume of more than $500 million. Yaskawa America Motoman Robotics division supplies robots for arc welding, spot welding, painting, handling, and other production processes. Automotive manufacturers in Germany and Japan are implementing its latest two-armed handling robots.

“We are working to build a general-purpose interface between the broad manipulation and perception capabilities of the ROS framework and the highly reliable architecture of industrial robots,” explained W. Clay Flannigan, manager of the Robotics and Automation Engineering Section of SwRI. “We plan to implement the interface at a low level within the existing robot controller that enables the capabilities of the ROS manipulation stack, while maintaining the safety inherent in the industrial controller.

“By providing the solution as open source, we hope to build a community around the use of ROS in a wide variety of industrial applications,” he continued. “Ideally, the community will expand to encompass more robots, sensors, and industrial controllers, and we hope to contribute to the process.”

Flannigan said SwRI expects to release the source in the first quarter of 2012.

Erik Nieves, technology director for Yaskawa America's Motoman Robotics Division, explained that his company is pursuing an open-source controller interface for its Motoman line of robots. “Yaskawa's strategy is to offer many controllers for the many different audiences and applications that our robots address,” he said. “This ROS adaption is in line with that strategy.

“The next step for industrial robotics is to be more ‘sensor aware’,” Nieves detailed, “to be able to accommodate the many new capabilities showing up in the service sector. It's clear that ROS is able to handle all of these, and it saves our programming department from writing drivers for each and every possible configuration. We want ROS for these next generation devices that will come first to ROS.

A near-term goal of the project is to demonstrate advanced material-handling solutions that leverage the path planning, grasp planning, and perception frameworks within ROS, to enable robotic solutions that would be difficult or expensive with current solutions. One can only imagine the longer-term future. Perhaps ROS could become the universal robot controller that most end-users wish for … perhaps some day soon the clunky teaching pendant will be replaced by an iPad or tablet running an ROS applet.

Willow Garage's CEO Steve Cousins commented on the importance of the SwRI Motoman ROS porting project, and explained that current industrial robots often don't need the extensive vision, mobility and navigation capabilities available in the growing world of service robotics. But, vision and navigation systems are the next stage in the evolution of industrial robotics as it branches out from automotive manufacturing and into all the other areas of production and material handling, and ROS is a good entry system to program, simulate, and implement these new industrial and material handling applications using all the new navigation and vision features.

By using ROS, and with no significant cost for software research, Yaskawa's Motoman robots will be able to add features to its existing line of robot manipulators and enable them to compete for new manufacturing processes. ROS and Willow Garage are getting a boost to their credibility by this real (and timely proof) of concept. Also, getting a boost are the many industrial integrators who bring a range of industrial expertise to the ROS community, making both groups stronger.

Frank Tobe, is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, a site devoted to the business of robotics.

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