Humanoid robot could help out in understaffed factories

A new human-like assembly robot could bring the science fiction vision of people and androids working together a step closer.

The pi4-workerbot, developed at the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology in Germany, is designed to help factories increase their production capacity at short notice.

Although the robot isn’t as dextrous or fast as human workers, its pressure-sensitive arms and 3D-camera eyes allow it to quickly adapt to different assembly tasks and it can operate 24 hours a day.

Its size and shape enable it to be installed in workspaces designed for people and it even has facial expressions to indicate its progress and help it integrate with its human counterparts.

‘If a company needs to produce something fast but has no worker resources, the idea would be to rent the workerbot and integrate it into human working spaces,’ the Fraunhofer working group head, Dr Dragoljub Surdilovic, told The Engineer.

The Fraunhofer Institute has developed the prototype robot in partnership with private firm pi4 Robotics under the EU-funded PISA project and hopes to have the first units ready for sale next year.

Workerbot’s two integrated arms have swivel joints corresponding to wrists, giving them the seven degrees of freedom of movement that human arms have – unlike conventional robots that only have one swivel joint at the shoulder and six degrees of freedom.

The big challenge for the Fraunhofer team was developing the control software that would allow the two arms to cooperate to pick up and manipulate objects.

‘We are trying to understand how humans perform this operation and how we can control the robot to make the arms deeply integrated,’ said Surdilovic.

The control system also had to use the arms’ force sensors to adapt to new production tasks it was set, rather than following pre-programmed instructions.

The arms are so sensitive that if programmed correctly they can pick up an egg with the right force to stop it from breaking.

The robot has three cameras: a 3D model in its forehead to capture general surroundings and two others used for inspection purposes.

These enable the workerbot to carry out tasks such as measuring objects or inspecting surfaces by studying how light reflects off a material.

Facial expressions indicate to the manager how the work is going. For example, the workerbot will smile if the task is going well or look bored if it’s waiting for work.

The machine inevitably raises the question of whether factories are moving towards full-scale robotisation. But Surdilovic said the workerbot did not have the capabilities to replace humans.

‘There is a mistake in that some people are afraid we want to replace humans but we want only to provide additional help when there is no other solution,’ he said.

‘The advantage of the robot is that it can work for 24 hours and repeat an…operation and so can free humans from monotonous jobs.’