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New Applications for Mobile Robots

by Bennett Brumson , Contributing Editor
Robotic Industries Association

Mobility promises to be the next frontier in flexible robotics. While fixed robots will always have a place in manufacturing, augmenting traditional robots with mobile robots promises additional flexibility to end-users in new applications. These applications include medical and surgical uses, personal assistance, security, warehouse and distribution applications, as well as ocean and space exploration.

“We see increased interest in mobile robotics across all industries. The ability of one mobile robot to service several locations and perform a greatly expanded range of tasks offers a great appeal for specialized applications,” says Corey Ryan, Medical Account Manager at KUKA Robotics Corp. (Shelby Township, Michigan).

Autonomous mobile robot on the job, courtesy Adept Technology Inc.Mobile Apps
Mobile robots are proliferating says Rush LaSelle, Vice President and General Manager with Adept Technology Inc. (Pleasanton, California). “In the industrial space, mobile robots are redefining the playing field for autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) in that modern mobile platforms are capable of operating in areas without requiring alterations or investment into existing infrastructure. Mobile robots overcome a historical impediment of AGVs, their inability to dynamically reroute themselves. Mobile robots are outfitted with advanced sensory and enhanced intelligence systems.”

Reduced costs enable deploying both large and small fleets of vehicles in warehouse distribution and line-side logistics applications, LaSelle adds.

Mobile robots can be particularly useful in painting and de-painting applications, says Erik Nieves, Director of Technology in the Motoman Robotics Division of Yaskawa America Inc. (Miamisburg, Ohio). “Mobility is a force multiplier for robots and I see that in de-painting very large structures such as C-130 aircraft. Two fixed robots cannot de-paint an entire aircraft between them because they cannot reach everywhere.” More than two fixed robots constitutes too much hardware with very little throughput. “Each robot is painting a little piece then sit idle, parked more than moving,” says Nieves.

Nieves suggests that rather than adding additional fixed robots around the aircraft, end-users needs a way to have two robots deal with an entire aircraft. “To de-paint an entire aircraft with two robots, those two robots need to move.” Putting the robots on servo tracks or a gantry is unfeasible due to aircraft’s geometry. “Putting two seven-axis robots on mobile platforms and driving them around the aircraft” is a better solution, Nieves says.

Mobile robot working on aircraft wing, courtesy Southwest Research InstituteLikewise, Paul Hvass, Senior Research Engineer with the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI, San Antonio, Texas) says mobile robots facilitate cost-effective paint removal from large aircraft. “The motivation behind the development of our Metrology-Referenced Roving Accurate Manipulator (MR ROAM) was to demonstrate high-accuracy, industrial-grade mobile manipulation for very large workspaces, an enabling capability for applications like aircraft paint stripping. SwRI has a 25-year history of developing, deploying, and supporting custom robots for fighter jet paint stripping and other large scale applications.”
 
Hvass goes on to say, “To economically strip paint from larger planes, mobile automation is needed. In the future, we envision mobile robots developed for large-scale tasks including aerospace, off-shore, and road, bridge, and building construction. These robots will initially undertake light-duty tasks such as painting, cleaning, and inspection before moving on to heavier-duty tasks as mobile robotic technology matures,” Hvass concludes.

Medical/Surgical Applications
Corey Ryan talks about potential uses of mobile robotics in medical and other life sciences applications. “Medical applications are always a growing field with huge untapped applications like drug delivery, or the development of mobile treatment systems for specialized equipment.”

People and mobile robots working collaboratively, courtesy RMT Robotics Ltd.Autonomous mobile robots (AMR) can play a role in assisting doctors in surgical procedures, says, Bill Torrens, Director of Sales and Marketing with RMT Robotics Ltd. (Grimsby, Ontario, Canada). “AMR technology is applied in surgical applications. Based on inputs, the robot arm assists the surgeon to perform a task. Path-planning algorithms move the robot autonomously.”

Sean Thompson, Applications Engineer at MICROMO (Clearwater, Florida) sees an increase use of robotics for automated prosthesis fabrication. “Minimizing motor size helps make prostheses more related to the natural human form. That comes down to applying power to build prostheses that more closely emulates the body’s natural capabilities.”

Danger Seeker
Mobile robots can access areas dangerous to humans, says, Andrew Goldenberg, President of Engineering Services Inc. (ESI, Toronto, Ontario, Canada). “Mobile robots are used to reach inaccessible areas such as nuclear power plants. Mobile robotics are very useful in nuclear environments with high levels of radiation, particularly during a disaster or threat of a disaster.”

Goldenberg goes on to say, “Some companies are using robotics underwater while others want to develop robotics for military applications, shoreline exploration of mines, and for repairing a ship’s structure.” ESI is involved with mobile robots for space exploration, such as rovers remotely moving on Mars.

Mobile robot bristling with sensors on tracks, courtesy Engineering Services Inc.As a caveat, Goldenberg says, “Current robotics are not quite sufficiently designed to withstand high radiation affecting their electronic circuitry. Some attempts to design mobile robotics specifically for use in this environment have been made.”

Wireless communication with mobile robots is still a challenge, says Goldenberg. “If mobile robots go underground or in areas of low connectivity like subway tunnels, control of the robot could be lost.”

Hvass also talks about communication to and from mobile robots. “If the robot communicates with infrastructure over a wireless link, that link is vulnerable due to bandwidth sharing, variable distances between radios, obstructions, and non-deterministic protocols.”

Mobile robots for use in inaccessible areas is also on the mind of Sean Thompson. “We see more interest in undersea robotics with smaller non-tethered robots used by research facilities. Aerial robotics tends to go either way, smaller platforms and larger platforms, depending on the mission. Camera packages have gotten smaller which allow aerial robots to roam at lower altitudes in shorter distances on smaller aircraft. These remote-controlled aircraft are collecting highly-detailed and accurate video.”

Thompson speaks of other military applications of mobile robotics. “Troopers could carry heavier loads with robotic pack dogs and exoskeletons. This technology is different from replacing a service dog but will be commonplace in five to 10 years.”

LaSelle also sees mobile robotics utilized for patrol and monitoring applications. “Another key expansion of mobile robotics has been in monitoring, security and patrolling. Patrolling applications provide users with the ability to monitor intrusion, thermal and other environmental conditions. A key area of activity has been the monitoring and patrol of vacant properties as well as warehousing spaces.” This increased ability is due to the reliability and low costs attributed to autonomous vehicle patrol capabilities, LaSelle says.

Thermal monitoring is of special interest to Internet server farms and other sensitive electronic or mechatronic systems. Water ingress is also commonly monitored by way of mobile robotics, LaSelle notes.

Mobile robots are finding their way into other non-industrial applications. “The reduced cost of deployment and ownership mobile robots have extended their reach into non-factory applications. The current generation of smart vehicles is leading hospitals, laboratories, and some offices to employ mobile robots to alleviate the use of skilled labor for mundane transport tasks.”

Continuing, LaSelle adds, “Mobility is already the norm in service applications and this sector is primed for tremendous growth. Service robotics is expected to overshadow the industrial robot sector in a matter of a few years. Adept believes mobile robots will be an exciting area in coming years,” reports LaSelle.

Mobility=Lean
The vision of truly lean manufacturing is being realized through mobile robotics says Torrens. “Mobile robotics connect islands of automation. The last frontier of lean manufacturing facilitates the connection between manufacturing work cells. Mobile robots are now used for transporting materials from donation areas and taking these raw materials to a work cell.”

Torrens says mobile robotics provides a much higher level of flexibility for manufacturers. “For example, a manufacturing facility normally delivers a bin of 100 parts for a machine to work on. This is an example of batch processing, not lean manufacturing. Lean manufacturing embraces a piece-work philosophy, or a smaller batch philosophy. If taking one piece at a time to a machine, manufacturers have more flexibility with robotic transport between manufacturing cells. That approach is lean manufacturing as originally intended.”

Torrens believes “mobile robots have finally achieved the goals of what the factory of the future was supposed to look like. The machines were in place but the transport logistic was not.” Mobile robotics provides that logistical support, argues Torrens. “To realize lean manufacturing, robots must be highly intelligent and able to autonomously deliver parts from any random origin to any random destination. Mobile robot technology up to this point has been unable to deliver materials in a just-in-time way.”

LaSelle anticipates mobile robotics serving the ends of lean manufacturing through processing of optimal batch sizes in warehouse and palletizing applications. “Adept sees the combination of mobility and manipulation as a powerful combination as evident in the increasing demand for case-picking applications. Companies want to move smaller batch sizes throughout their facilities.” End-users want to move less than a full pallet from a warehouse to a production line, concludes LaSelle.

“Companies look for solutions to pick cases or parts individually within a warehouse as compared to pulling a full rack. As this trend continues, expect to see more demand for systems encompassing mobility, manipulation, and vision. Given the rate of technological advancement and drive for smaller batch sizes in manufacturing, we will see mobile robots become a staple in a large cross section of manufacturing within the next six to seven years,” foresees LaSelle.

Autonomous Locomotion
Genuine independent mobility is necessary for robotics to add significant value to manufacturing says Erik Nieves. “Mobility moves robots from being machines to production partners. The robot has to move to the work but if the robot is bolted to the floor and has no work before that robot, the robot is adding zero value to the production process.” Bringing a mobile robot to where production is rather than bringing production to a fixed robot is the philosophical underpinning of mobile robotics, Nieves says.

Any mobile platform must address issues relating to power, navigation, and calibration, says Nieves. “Instead of mobile robots tethered to a source of power through an umbilical, the robot will dock to a power source when reaching a point of interest, to recharge while working.” On-board power simply keeps the robot mobile during transit.

Nieves turns his attention to navigation, or “How the robot gets from A to B autonomously. Using simultaneous localization and mapping, the mobile robot can go from one station to the next largely on its own with without many changes to the facility. To change the mobile robot’s path, [a number of guidance] labels are put somewhere else,” describes Nieves.

Calibration, the final element in Nieves’ approach, is a measure of how close the robot gets to it intended destination. “The robot must calibrate itself to the machine in front of it every time it arrives at one. Calibration is done by some means, such as touching off on three points or using a vision sensor to allow the robot to determine its location.”

Kiva Systems’ (North Reading, Massachusetts) automated warehouse system is an example of mobile robots quickly and efficiently fulfilling customers' orders. The robot-based system impressed on-line retail giant Amazon.com (Seattle, Washington) enough to acquire Kiva in March 2012.

Going Mobile
As with any new, cutting-edge technology, mobile robotics has yet to become the norm in manufacturing. “In heavy or unusual payload applications, mobile robotic platforms are becoming increasingly common along with a great deal of interest in small mobile platforms. Given the current level of technology already used in mobile platforms, these products will likely become very common within the next five to 10 years,” says Corey Ryan.

To do so, the robotics industry will need to continue educating end-users on the potential of mobile robotics. For more information on service robots, check out the 2011 feature article on Robotics Online: Service Robots and their Rapid Rise in Multiple Markets.
 

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