U of M Wins Big in Basketball and Robotics

January 31, 2011

By Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & PR, RIA

Somewhere over Afghanistan an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) loitered as a pilot and two sensor operators checked for threats on a dusty road to be used by a military convoy. Back in America, parents and kids were free for an afternoon of sledding on snow covered slopes. On a campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan, students prepared to be recognized for a swarm of robots that won first place and $750,000 in a global competition for autonomous ground robots.

On a Sunday, two kids (Mitchell and Ethan Huse) recently off the snowy slopes of Kensington Metro Park ended up at the University of Michigan campus to see the Wolverines take on the Iowa Hawkeyes in a Big 10 matchup. Little did they know that after the game they would be walking outside in the frigid night air with two of the robots and some of the students that won the big prize.

At eight- and five-years-of-age, neither of the Huse boys would likely think how thousands of miles away “robots” flew the skies to help protect combat troops in deserts full of sand almost as white as the snow under their boots. For that matter, they had no real appreciation of having seen Tim Hardaway Jr. drain 19 points to lead U of M scorers while Darius Morris posted just the third triple-double in Wolverine history (Gary Grant and Manny Harris) in a Michigan 87-73 win.

They just knew they were happy. And safe. And free to dream about more sledding or new adventures with robots.

Had it not been for a gift of tickets from his boss at work, a dad on the staff from Robotic Industries Association would not have been to the game at all, and his two kids would not have seen the fun and action that night. Enter yours truly, Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & PR, at RIA. I lucked into those tickets at our holiday party back in December – a prescient move from my boss, Jeff Burnstein, as those tickets were destined for a night that would feature a big win for U of M in many ways.

Since 1961 robots have been used to free man from danger. That is when Joseph F. Engelberger sold the first industrial robot to General Motors for handling parts in the hot, heavy task of die cast operations. A Navy man himself, Engelberger understood the risk soldiers take, and though he never pursued military applications for robots he did seek to remove people from harm’s way. For instance, back then it took its toll to breathe foundry fumes, and he knew that through robotics it was possible to give people safer places from which to work.

For 50 years robots have served in the worldwide workforce, especially in the automotive industry, but in today’s world half the robots sold go into other areas. They are now found in labs, consumers goods packaging, semiconductor production and even food processing.

An entirely different category of robots go into military applications.

Wherever they are found, exciting new careers and job opportunities in robotics have become main stream. Students like Johannes Strom and Ryan Morton at U of M have spent years developing robots that can be used for autonomous ground operations, and their team’s first-place win at a military sanctioned event underscores the variety of drivers pushing robotics technology today.

What gave U of M’s team the edge in their competition? For its Big 10 game at Crisler Arena it was a combination of outstanding effort by many teammates. And as we saw at half-time when the U of M robotics team was honored with a big, ceremonial check for winning the competition known as MAGIC (Multi Autonomous Ground-robotic International Challenge) it was no doubt great contributions from students such as Ryan Morton and Johannes Strom.

As we walked out of Crisler Arena, my boys and I just happened to converge with those robots that won the MAGIC competition. I caught up to Johannes Strom as he strode along behind the ‘bots. We soon had a gaggle of boys (mine included) all around. Little feet danced here and there and the robots deftly avoided them despite all the unpredictable moves.

“What gave your robots the edge to win?” I asked Strom.

“We fielded the most robots,” he told me. “We had 14 in the competition and 24 altogether.”

It wasn’t quite so simple, of course. These robots also did better than all the others at finding and eliminating threats. And they did it with a small ratio of operators to robots (1:7 to be precise).

“UAV’s have 12 person crews,” said Strom. The idea, he explained, is to have more robots than operators – like a swarm of 14 run by two people. That turns logistics and economics on its head compared to the support staff needed for UAV’s. (It takes more than just the pilot and sensor operators to fly a UAV as mentioned earlier – in fact a team of 55 is typically assigned to a force of four UAV’s. Defense Update.)

It was cold outside Crisler Arena (21 degrees F) and Strom’s hands were stuffed in his pockets as we walked and talked. The crowd got bigger and one of the kids asked who was controlling the robots. Strom pulled his hand out of his pocket and waved his iPhone.

“You have an app for that?” I asked, unable to keep the grin off my face. Just so, he admitted, then he had to steer his robot around an intruding foot and into the snow a little bit. No problem; the robot rolled through it not missing a beat. But he waved Ryan Morton over. He was carrying the big cardboard check for $750,000 and took over the narrative for me so Johannes could stay focused on driving his robot.

We walked a bit further and I learned more about the robots. Google supplied more background when I got home, and I had already seen some of this on Robotics Online, but this in-person experience was truly amazing. The robots were hardy enough to go out in the snowy, cold night and nimble enough to handle a pretty chaotic scene.

In autonomous mode the robots use GPS and LIDAR combined with vision. I was told they actually lost points for using GPS (not always dependable signal in a concrete jungle), but the robots have a very robust navigation system backup in the dual sensors of laser radar and machine vision. The battery is lithium ion (LiFePO4 to be precise) and gives them enough power for four hours of continuous operation. A laptop and a lawn mower chassis give it smarts and mobility, and rapid prototyping machines gave them a way to grow their fleet easily and cost-effectively.

On each robot is a little mast or tower with an over-sized bar code of sorts on it. I asked about that and learned it was one of the more important aspects to their success. Similar in design to a QR Code, it is a marker to help the robots identify each other and calibrate for a larger situational awareness. They know where each other are and thus have more data on their location.

Congratulations to all the faculty and students at U of M for winning where it counts: On the floor. Yes, it was fun to see a solid win on the basketball court, but it was even more fun walking home with robots swarming around our feet.

For the more serious matters happening in military zones around the world, robots will help soldiers come home safely where we all share in the freedom to play carefree on winter days from sea to shining sea. Let it snow!


Robots Then and Now – From Magic to Legend and Beyond

January 26, 2011

By Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & PR, Robotic Industries Association

Before there were robots there were golems – creatures of human-like form brewed from mud and magic. 100 years ago concepts of androids and automatons were popular notions of the time, but the term “robot” did not appear until the 1921 Czek play “R.U.R” (Rossum’s Universal Robots).

Today’s robots are not magical but they still are the stuff of legend and they are evolving. Fifty years ago, Joseph Engelberger, the “Father of robotics,” sold the first industrial robot to GM. From the beginning he sought to free workers from dirty, dangerous and dull jobs that threatened life and limb or numbed the brain. His own legend lives on as the modern age finds ever more applications for robots.

Today, NASA and GM have their own jointly developed robot that looks a little like Iron Man and a lot like an android. Robonaut 2 has a ticket on the next flight to the space station where it will give astronauts “eyes and hands” for outside tasks which are intrinsically hazardous to human life. More about Robonaut 2 will be told during a joint keynote, March 22 in Chicago, Illinois USA at McCormick Place during Automate 2011.

In fact, right here on planet Earth robots will be roaming the show floor at Automate 2011. Adept’s MobileRobot can guide attendees to destinations at the Show. Anybots brings its own telepresence device for you to see at the Emerging Robots Pavilion. Innovative ideas and eye-opening displays are shared by exhibitors throughout the South Hall at McCormick Place.

Warehouses and the enterprise of logistics now use robots for many applications and in some cases automation has blurred the lines between automation and robots. Such technology is on display in the North Hall of McCormick Place at ProMat. One ticket gains you entry to both shows.

As noted by X Prize Foundation founder Dr. Peter Diamandis (a speaker at RIA’s annual Robotics Industry Forum in January 2011) technology allows small groups to do what it used to take entire nations to accomplish. Robots are part of that equation and tremendous catalysts for change.

Many views and ideas were exchanged at the Forum. Rockwell Automation sees global trends for automation demand with China as the big pick for much of the surge. Perhaps one day there will be fully autonomous cars that will allow the blind to drive. It could happen according to Bill Thomasmeyer of the Technology Collaborative.

Robotics at Procter & Gamble came into focus through Mark Lewandowski of their Corporate Engineering Machine Controls unit who says they have 140 manufacturing locations with 200 to 300 robot applications in place now. And he sees potential to increase use of robots by five-fold for consumer packaged goods, with assembly and other complex tasks ripe for the taking.

Whether it was GM, X Prize, Procter & Gamble or any of the many other speakers, concern about the fate of workers was always a priority. It will take more technical credentials for the workplace of the future, but those jobs will be more stimulating and allow individuals to contribute greater value as they drive companies toward global competitiveness. People are considered the best assets by every speaker at the Forum and they anticipate we will have a smarter, happier workforce that gives their companies more competitive juice to survive in the global economy.

President Obama also believes technology will forge America’s future and allow it to “out-innovate, out-educate and out-build” its business rivals. People want their technology to be as easy to use as an iPhone, safe and to enable greater personal productivity. We heard that over and over at the Forum and will need good, clever workers who can make that happen.

One way RIA can help is to offer training in robot safety, and on robot fundamentals. Many will have access to in-depth classroom sessions at Automate 2011, March 21-24 in Chicago, IL at McCormick Place. In-house training is offered as well. Visit Robotics Online to find more intelligence on the industry and its brightest stars – the members of Robotic Industries Association.

Robonaut 2 is Subject of Keynote Address at Automate 2011

January 11, 2011

By Jeff Burnstein, President, Robotic Industries Association

I took a handoff from the GM-NASA Robonaut 2 while at a recent press event in Warren, Michigan, and the first thing that struck me about the GM-NASA Robonaut 2 is how big he was.

RIA President Jeff Burnstein shakes hands with GM-NASA Robonaut 2

RIA President Jeff Burnstein shakes hands with GM-NASA Robonaut 2

With his football-player physique and great hands, he would be a terrific addition to my beloved Michigan Wolverines!  But, those great hands will have to come in handy elsewhere.

The dexterity of Robonaut is extremely impressive; indeed, the developments in the hand are among the most sophisticated I’ve seen.  Strong grip when shaking hands, but also the ability to manipulate delicate items, such as the envelope he handed me during the demonstration I participated in.

I’m very excited to learn more about Robonaut 2 during the keynote addresss at Automate on Tuesday, March 22 in Chicago. Learn more about the Show and Conference at www.automate2011.com.

Hang Your Robot on the Wall

January 7, 2011

New midrange models from ABB can take it and are light but strong. http://ht.ly/3xo1K

The IRB 2600 is the second introduction from ABB’s fourth-generation of midrange industrial robots, a structured portfolio redesign that began with the 2009 introduction of the IRB 4600 family of robots in the 20 to 60 kg payload range.  At weights of 284 kg and 435 kg respectively for the heaviest models, the IRB 2600 and IRB 4600 are among the lightest robots available in their payload ranges.

RIA Forum hits 300! Space Tight

January 6, 2011

Pre-registgration for the RIA Forum is more than 300 and space is filling fast at the Disney Boardwalk Hotel! Call for information about a waiting list: 734/994-6088. (Members only.)

As the collocated Robotics Industry Forum, AIA and MCA Business Conferences in Orlando approach, we recommend that you set-up networking appointments in advance.  Each morning we’ll have tables set-up in the breakfast area.  Some will be designated for discussion topics with Board members, others will be free for anyone to sit at.

You can also set-up meetings at lunch (there will be no assigned seating this year) or after the sessions are over each day, or during the evening events.

Past attendees who have planned advance meetings report this has greatly improved the success of their networking time.

All the tools you need are here in the preliminary version of the networking guide that you will receive at the event.


A Toast to the New Year!

January 3, 2011

The glass you raise may have been engraved by a robot. KEBA shows us how in their video. http://ht.ly/3xnIq

Numerous areas of application

One typical application is the automation of surface treatment procedures such as sanding, polishing, smoothing, stripping, cleaning and deburring. The sensitive handling of the workpiece is of decisive importance in this regard, as the danger of damage to the processed material as a result of uncontrolled contact pressure is especially great.

The gentle application of force by the Active Contact Flange is also the key to success during bonding, joining and the examination and testing of surfaces, and guarantees top quality results.

This also applies to complex assembly applications, e.g. within moving vehicle passenger compartments on automotive industry production lines, as well as automatic machine handling and the highly accurate pick-and-place of sensitive objects.