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Robotics – technology with multi-faceted potential

Timo Salmi, Marketta Niemelä, Tapio Heikkilä | 31.12.2014

​Robotics provides Finnish industry with one of the key technologies of competitivity.

Many kinds of images are connected with robotics, some of them very fanciful. After all, robots have also been the subject of a large number of books and films. So-called humanoid robots, walking robots mimicking humans and human activities, have recently been in the public spotlight. Major investments have been made in humanoid robots, particularly in Japan, where local car companies, for instance, have ­demonstrated their own solutions. They have been mainly research or demonstration machines, but in the presented visions, they serve people in their everyday lives. Indeed, robotics is seen to have plenty of potential in the future. The robotics applications of everyday life today and in the near future, however, are robots performing individual routine tasks around the house, such as vacuum cleaners and window cleaners.  

Traditionally, a robot refers to a general-purpose, computer-controlled­ device handling wor pieces or tools. General purpose refers to the programmability of the robot’s motions, and the possibility of using the same machine for ­several different purposes. The robot’s movements are usually generated with electric actuators, but they can also be pneumatic or hydraulic. Today, robots are machines that may have various different kinds of physical structures but are programmed to move; they often involve observing the environment and acting accordingly – there are various kinds of mobile robots such as automatically navigating miniature aircraft and cars. In robot cars, the car is steered with the help of a large number of different actuators, sensors, a computer and software that utilises all of these.

The word ‘robot’ is also used of software that automatically performs certain tasks, for example robotic stock trading or Web robots. These cases, however, do not involve actual robotics, as the definition of a robot includes a physical-mechanical structure. 

Robotics combines developments in many different branches of technology:

  • information technology: processor technology 
  • computers and software technology
  • actuators 
  • sensor technology
  • mechanics, such as device structures, and gearboxes.


 

Industry has been the forerunner in the application of robotics. The end of the 1960s saw the introduction of the first robotic applications in the car industry, which continues to play an important role in the application and development­ of robotics. In industrial robotics,­ the basic technology became established by the end of the 1980s, and industrial robots became industrial standard products. In that field, develop­ment has been gradual, involving small steps forward on a wide front. 

Service robotics refers to non-industrial robotics. Service robots include, for example, warehousing and distribution robots, milking robots, remotely operated surgeon robots and robots for difficult conditions such as ocean and space exploration robots. Personal service robots targeted at consumers and special groups form their own group, from robot solutions providing assistance to domestic and toy robots. 

In the consumer market, expectations are great. IRF (2013), for example, estimates that 24 million personal household robots such as robotic vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers­ will be sold during 2014–2017. The 2012 and 2013 sales act as a point of comparison, with sales of around two million robots per year.  

Market expansion is slowed down by two challenges. The robots acquired should be both cost-effective and function reliably in changing­ and non-organised environments. In industry, the environment is easier to control than the operating environments for service robotics. However, industrial robots are also developing in a direction where they work in the same space with human workers.

In service robotics, robots specialising in a certain, narrow task such as vacuum cleaning, have reached the highest technical maturity and therefore also commercial success on the ­consumer market.

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland develops not only industrial robotics and special robotics solutions, but also service robotics solutions for the problems of companies. VTT is also investigating the possibilities and markets of service robotics as an answer to social challenges such as the ageing population. 


 

Industrial robotics

The structure of Finnish industry has affected the contents of industrial robotics research in Finland, and thereby also at VTT. A majority of the industrial robot markets are controlled by large, established, international manufacturers. There are no manufacturers of traditional, general-purpose industrial robots in Finland; Finnish manufacturers have concentrated on special applications such as handling heavy objects or abrasive blasting. Other players in the robotic field in Finland mainly include creators of robotic applications, or integrators, and robot salespeople, who also often act as integrators, and those applying robotics. The needs and baselines of the car and electronics industries­ have played a major role in the development of robots. Considering its features, a modern­ robot is a very cost-effective system component into which many kinds of sensors­ and control­ systems increasing its intelligence can be connected. The robot itself is, however, only a single­ part of the complete system or functioning application, and its share of the costs of the functioning system has been constantly decreasing. Indeed, Finnish research has focused on overall solutions and advanced applications instead of the robots themselves.

From the perspective of Finnish industry, the challenges faced by the field of robotics are small manufacturing series and continuously changing products. Considering short-run production, the greatest challenges to the efficient utilisation of robotics are the investments related to an individual product of an entire system, including programming, deployment of a new product, and ability to adapt tochanges in the environment, process or products, that is to say, it is a question of flexibility and adaptability. This subject can be approached from many different directions: from the automation or facilitation of the creation of new software, flexible materials handling and fastening solutions, intelligent utilisation of sensor data, system architecture, etc. Innovative solutions are needed for both the overall system and the various subareas, as the weakest link of the overall system determines its practical flexibility. Research has thus been done in the development of flexible system solutions and comprehensive applications. 

Furthermore, the research has focused on solving individual obstacles to flexibility by utilising versatile sensor data. Good examples­ of this include the utilisation of force sensors­ in grinding; object picking with the help of machine vision, the most extreme application involving picking completely disorganised objects from drawers; creation of grinding programmes with the help of a measurement profile, and generation of robot programmes with the help of CAD models. There are several examples in industry where short-run production and even one-off production is done at an efficiency almost reaching long-run production levels. There are a lot of possibilities, but awareness of them is regrettably poor. 

One research subject that is currently topical internationally is cooperation between humans and robots. The goal is to utilise human flexi­bility and the robot’s ability to perform repetitive work precisely, or to utilise the robot’s strength. There are many demanding technical and safety-related challenges. In the case of robots, there are the dangers of collision and crushing.­ Humans and robots have traditionally been ­separated by fences, but with the help of new safety technology,­ the fences can be eliminated – while safety design becomes more challenging. Small, light, and slowly moving, so-called safe robots, are a solution for some applications, but in ­situations demanding greater strength, speed or precision, more complex solutions are required. VTT’s research has utilised current technology in order to develop solutions that enable human–robot cooperation in many kinds of tasks, such as packaging tasks, handling of heavy objects, or using a robot as a welding jig.


 

Service robotics

Service robots are used non-industrially to perform­ various tasks or services for people – hence the name. Service robots are mobile machines that possibly handle objects, operate independently, and interact with people. Service robot applications include agricultural, cleaning, construction and medical (surgery, care, rehabilitation) applications, and space and underwater applications. Service robotics have been developed­ for both professional expert use and for consumers. As the service robots operate in the same room as people, sometimes in a very close interactive relationship, service robot technologies must support ease of use, adaptability, and an ability to function in changing environments – and, in particular, safety. 

The safe and easy-to-use interaction of the service robots is largely based on sensors that observe the environment and the robot. The sensors are used to control the robot’s precise functions, such as the motions of its body or arms, and maintain safety, for example, by interrupting the robot’s function when a human is detected too close to the robot or its tool. 

Service robotics can also be considered to include the advance functions in the heavy work machines manufactured by the Finnish industry, such as mining machines and equipment. For instance, intelligent work machines move autonomically in mining tunnels without needing a driver and are steered from control rooms safely and ergonomically.


 

Care robotics 

Service robotics are also developed for various care, assistance, and rehabilitation tasks. The purposes vary from simple assistance solutions to social robots that are therapeutic and support interaction. In these applications, the robotic technology is not necessarily very advanced; the challenges lie in designing their interaction and fitness for purpose.

Robotic equipment is available to the elderly and those with disabilities in order to make their everyday life easier, such as a multi-­purpose robotic arm mounted on a wheelchair, or a feeding arm. Robots are being developed to support­ the independent living of the elderly; they monitor­ the condition of their owner and can detect falls; they also make an emergency call in the case of an emergency and open a video connection to a doctor or a family member. Service­ robots may be used at rehabilitation clinics,­ where a rehabilitation robot tirelessly assists and guides the patient’s movements, providing suitable resistance for strengthening the patient’s muscular power.

Robotics has also found applications in non-physical rehabilitation. Humanoids resembling people, such as NAO, and animal-like zoonoids, such as the Paro seal robot, are able to engender positive emotions and activate interaction between people. The Paro seal has been found to reduce the restlessness of those suffering from memory disorders, and increase the feeling­ of community at an old-age home. The NAO humanoid has been beneficial to autistic children, who find the situations and rules of social interaction difficult to grasp. Interaction with NAO is easy and unchanging, giving a chance to rehearse the means of human interaction. New uses found for NAO include brightening the everyday life of the elderly: the tiny humanoid has led exercise sessions and read the Aamulehti newspaper to the elderly. 

The ageing of the population is a megatrend. Robotics opens up possibilities for both better care and the reorganisation of care. Robots will not be able to replace nurses – robots do not act independently, they are tools for the care staff. The results of the trials have been positive, but the long-term benefits should be systematically studied. There are also ethical questions involved in the therapeutic use of robots: Can you become attached to a robot? Does the user understand that the emotions displayed by the robot are not real? 

According to an attitude barometer taken in the European Union’s Member States in 2012, people have a positive attitude towards robotics, Finns more so than Europeans on average. VTT has studied what expectations people have of robots in customer service. The robots are accepted because they help people. The closer a robot gets to an area considered to be a human domain – care, for instance, but also a warm, personal, and humorous customer service situation – the more sceptical the expectations. After meeting the robot, however, the experiences have as a rule been positive.


 

Summary

Robot technology is a wide field, where many kinds of know-how are required. Successful applications are achieved by building ­functional overall systems in a practical way. In addition to familiarity with the technology itself, this requires a good knowledge of the application environment. Furthermore, you must master the techno-economic issues in the development of robotics. Even superior technological know-how is not enough. The applications must suit their target in the techno-economic sense. As a multi-disciplinary institute, VTT has an exceptionally broad technological background in robotics research, and the possibilities of offering support for various robotics challenges with a balanced approach.

Attitudes towards robotic technologies are often two-fold. There is a fear that the robots will eliminate jobs. However, it is well known that  industry must operate in an atmosphere of tough international competition; in high-cost countries, things must be done more efficiently, smarter and better. The productivity of work must keep up with the competitiveness. In order to achieve this, all the means allowed by technology should be used, including robot technology. 

Industry is the prime mover of the national economy, generating funds into the financial cycle of the national economy. With the exception of the very smallest of countries, there are no examples of national economies thriving without industry. It is, therefore, vitally important by any means necessary to maintain the international competitiveness of industry. Robotics is justifiably one of the key technologies that make the competitiveness of the Finnish industry possible. 

There is a great deal of unused potential in the utilisation of new technologies both in industry and outside it. In the future, robotics will improve the quality of life of the elderly and the disabled, making their everyday life easier. Through research into and the design of interaction between humans and robots, VTT can ensure safe, easy-to-use, and ethical robotics applications.


 

Timo Salmi

Senior Scientist Timo Salmi has worked at VTT for 26 years, researching the design of production systems, robotics, production automation, and the development of production processes. 

Among other things, in the SISU 2010 – Innovative Manufacture research programme, he was the project manager or key researcher in several research projects in the field of robotics.​


 

 

 

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