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12-08-2019 | Industry 4.0 | News | Article

The Careful Robot Kit

Nadine Winkelmann

Robots have become indispensable to many a production task. Professor Matthias Althoff at the Technical University of Munich has developed a new system that promises to make it safe for humans and robots to work at close quarters.

Robots on production floors are generally kept behind safety barriers. The risk of them injuring staff working nearby is too great. But a new process could soon see robots emerge from their protective cages and transform automation practices: Professor Matthias Althoff has developed a straightforward modular system (IMPROV) with a range of components that can be used to build safe robots. The modules can be put together in virtually any combination, which means that robots can be customised for different tasks, and it's easy to replace damaged parts. Althoff has presented his system in specialist magazine "Science Robotics".

Self-programming with an integrated chip

Each module in the "kit" has a chip that allows the robot to program itself independently based on its particular component set. "Our modular design means that producing robots will soon be more cost-effective. But it also has another advantage. IMPROV allows us to develop safe robots that respond to humans in their vicinity and keep out of their way," says Althoff. The chip and the self-programming mean that the robot can automatically recognise all the information about the forces acting on it as well as its own geometry, and predict its travel path. 

Simultaneously, cameras in the area send the data on the movements of nearby humans to the robot's control centre. Using this collection of data, the robot creates a predictive model of the movements of workers in the area so that, for instance, it can stop if a hand is approaching it. "IMPROV guarantees control. Since the robots are automatically programmed for all possible movements around them, humans can't make them go wrong," explains Althoff.

Shorter cycle times

Some of the parts that the TUM scientists are using in their kit are standard industry modules, supplemented with the necessary chips and new, 3D-printed components. In a user study conducted by Althoff and his team, IMPROV worker-robots were not only cheaper and safer but also quicker, completing their tasks 36 percent faster than existing solutions that require a fixed safety enclosure.

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