Generation R will take your job

Sheila Kennedy reveals how robotics are making industrial plant maintenance easier and safer.

By Sheila Kennedy, contributing editor

Robots that climb, crawl, see and sense are bringing new life to industrial processes. Whether for maintenance, inspection or material handling, recent developments in robotics are destined to make the process easier and safer.

Humanoid presence: A robot suited for measurement, inspections and assembly has an oddly human appearance. The pi4-workerbot (www.pi4-robotics.com), a life-size, flexible robotic system offered for lease from Germany’s pi4-robotics, has two arms with seven degrees of freedom and fingertip sensitivity. Its “head” has two inspection cameras that resemble ears, a 3-D camera on the forehead for capturing surroundings and a central display of cartoonish facial expressions, including a smile when running smoothly and a bored look when waiting for work. See this robot in action.

Crawling live wires: High-voltage power lines normally are inspected from a distance from helicopters or disconnected for a hands-on look. The Expliner from Japan’s HiBot (www.hibot.co.jp) crawls across live transmission lines to capture the visual details of four cables simultaneously. Safety devices prevent it from falling as it rolls down the lines and maneuvers over and around obstacles. See a video demonstration. The semi-autonomous robot, operated by line technicians from as far as 2,200 ft away, uses laser sensors to detect corrosion and scratches, high-definition cameras to record bolt and spacer details, and software to alert users of potential problems.

The Electric Power Research Institute is developing a permanently installed, autonomous transmission line inspection robot.

“The basic concept applies to lines all over the world,” says Michele Guarnieri, co-founder of HiBot. “Expliner can work on other transmission lines. However, as the dimensions and obstacles, such as cable spacers or suspension clamps, might differ from those available in Japan, it might have to be customized slightly for use in each country.” HiBot is preparing for mass production of Expliner in Japan and plans to start distribution abroad in 2012.

The Electric Power Research Institute (www.epri.com) is developing a permanently installed, autonomous transmission line inspection robot, with commercial testing expected to begin in 2014.

Climbing walls: Inspecting vertical structures, such as storage tanks, nuclear reactors or buildings, poses a unique challenge for robotic systems. Researchers at the University of Utah's College of Engineering (www.coe.utah.edu) developed a robot that maximizes climbing efficiency. The ROCR Oscillating Climbing Robot is a small, lightweight, autonomous robot that ascends walls like a climbing ape. Watch it climb. Its optimal tail swing speed and claw spacing maximize the battery life and expand the range of tasks possible.

“ROCR's main advantage is its high-efficiency locomotion strategy, which can be used to extend the robot's mission life for autonomous inspection, surveillance or maintenance,” says William Provancher, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Utah. “For example, ROCR could scan the exterior surfaces of buildings, bridges or dams with non-destructive sensor technologies such as ultrasound.”

Synthetic vision: Researchers at Yale University (www.seas.yale.edu) and NYU (www.cs.nyu.edu) collaborated to develop a supercomputer that “sees” using complex vision algorithms. The NeuFlow system could be embedded into cars for autonomous navigation or into robots to improve navigation in dangerous or difficult locations. It also could provide 360° synthetic vision for surveillance. NeuFlow processes tens of megapixel images in real time and simultaneously runs more than 100 billion operations per second using a few Watts of power. Watch it work. The complete system is expected to be no larger than a wallet.

Gesture directed: Computer games are inspiring gesture-driven robotics. Microsoft’s Kinect, the motion sensing input device for Xbox 360, is the basis for a robotic nursing application, and the concept shows potential for additional industries. Researchers adapted Kinect’s engine to a prototype robotic scrub nurse, or GestoNurse, that uses a camera and special algorithms to recognize hand gestures as commands. See a video demonstration.

“GestoNurse is a new concept in robotics applied to healthcare, but it can be applied to manufacturing,” says Juan Pablo Wachs, an assistant professor of industrial engineering at Purdue University (https://engineering.purdue.edu). “It masters challenging problems related to dexterity and small parts handling and delivery to additional operators. The point that we make is that the robot can collaborate with a human under extremely challenging and time-sensitive environments.”

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Another research project, led by Fraunhofer IPA (www.fraunhofer.de/en/index.jsp) in Stuttgart, Germany, features a Wii-like sensor system that simplifies industrial robot control. The movement of a handheld input device causes the robot to emulate the movement. Algorithms merge the data from inertial sensors in the input device and identify patterns of movement. The system could allow industrial and logistical robots to learn by example rather than being programmed, configured and calibrated.

Email Contributing Editor Sheila Kennedy, managing director of Additive Communications, at sheila@addcomm.com.

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