New Applications for Mobile Robots

April 6, 2012

by Bennett Brumson , Contributing Editor
Robotic Industries Association
Originally posted 04/05/2012

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.

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 (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.

To read the original posting, click here.


Robots Start Naval Basic Training

April 3, 2012

The United States military is always on the forefront of cutting edge technology, and their interest in robotics is true to their course. Last month they opened the doors to LASR, their Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research. The center will be a development site and testing grounds for new autonomous units designed for ground, air, and sea.

Like robots? Then you’ll love these pics from a new military robotics lab

by Jolie O’Dell

The new, $17.7 million dollar facility got its official ribbon-cutting ceremony just two weeks ago, nearly two years after ground was initially broken on the site. The facility includes a wide range of environments for testing, from simulated deserts and rainforests to a 45-by-25-foot pool with a wave generator capable of producing directional waves.

The Navy said the number and type of research robotics projects will increase as researchers register to use the new LASR facility.

“It’s the first time that we have, under a single roof, a laboratory that captures all the domains in which our Sailors, Marines and fellow DOD service members operate,” said Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, in today’s release. “Advancing robotics and autonomy are top priorities for the Office of Naval Research. We want to reduce the time it takes to deliver capability to our warfighters performing critical missions. This innovative facility bridges the gap between traditional laboratory research and in-the-field experimentation-saving us time and money.”

Read the full article and see pictures at VentureBeat.

Military Robot Transformed into Medical Robot

January 6, 2012

Medical robots often are applied to support the medical team, but Ekso Bionics is developing a robot that will support the patients, some long past any medical hope. Ekso developed a robot “exoskeleton” for military purposes but quickly realized the potential applications for people who could use a little help with the first step – their first step out of their wheelchair.

Wearable Robots Help Paralyzed Warriors Walk Again By Allison Barrie

At 10 leading rehab facilities from Honolulu to Atlanta, Ekso Bionics’ Iron Man-style exoskeletons have been quietly tested over the past year, to resounding success.

Simply put, the exoskeleton is a wearable robot that allows a wheelchair user to stand up and walk. It could be a game-changer not only for wounded warriors with spinal cord injuries, but for people with multiple sclerosis, Guillain-Barre syndrome, lower extremity weakness or paralysis due to neurological disease or spinal injury.

Wheelchairs have been the go-to solution for more than 1,500 years – the 2002 census estimated 2.8 million U.S. citizens rely on them — but now Ekso Bionics is literally revolutionizing this space. Its ultimate goal: a robot that is as easy to wear as a pair of jeans, one that requires not only innovative engineering but biomechanics advancements and cyborg-type research.

Read more at Wearable Robots Help Paralyzed Warriors Walk Again By Allison Barrie on

Robotics in Security and Military Applications

November 15, 2011

by Bennett Brumson (as seen on Robotics Online)

Robotics have been a staple of advanced manufacturing for over half a century. As robots and their peripheral equipment become more sophisticated, reliable and miniaturized, these systems are increasingly being utilized for military and law enforcement purposes.

Mobile security robot on the prowl for trespassers, courtesy Adept Technology Inc.

“Military and battlefield applications continue to grow at an accelerated pace due to demand fueled by government investment. Over the past decade, we have seen increasing levels of investment in autonomous vehicles used for surveillance and security,” says Rush LaSelle, Vice President and General Manager with Adept Technology Inc. (Pleasanton, California) “Applications range from monitoring perimeters of secured areas such as airports to acting as a night watchman.”

Robots go to War
Mobile robotics play an increasingly important role in military matters, from patrol to dealing with potential explosives. “With suitable sensors and cameras to perform different missions, mobile robots are operated remotely for reconnaissance patrol and relay back video images to an operator,” says Dr. Andrew Goldenberg, PhD, Chief Executive Officer and President of Engineering Services Inc. (ESI, Toronto Ontario, Canada) “Robots can neutralize suspicious objects that may explode. The platform has a robot arm to pick up explosives or suspected hazards in military or civilian settings.”

Goldenberg goes on to say, “The mobile robotic platform is mounted on a rectangular box with electronic equipment. The platform moves on wheels or tracks, or both, and is usually battery-powered. Communication equipment and sensors can detect images, sounds, gases and other hazards. The communication systems read sensors and relay that information to the operator.”

According to Goldenberg, the United States military recently began equipping mobile robotic platforms to carry small and medium-size firearms.

Robotics help meet challenges posed by the specter of urban terrorism. “Instead of having people get close to hazards such as unattended objects or car bombs, robots are used. If an operator concludes a dangerous object might explode, the robot could neutralize that object by shooting to detonate it,” Goldenberg says. “Mobile robots detect and explode in-ground mines or improvised explosive devices.” These same mobile robotic systems are used for neutralizing or exploding forgotten ordnance and mines after conflicts cease.

Likewise, LaSelle says, “Government acts as a catalyst for these applications due to the heavy investment after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Security and patrol functionalities have extended into the private sector. Companies invest in autonomous vehicles to monitor warehouses, factories, and office spaces. These sentinel applications provide users with the ability to monitor a variety of conditions such as motion, intrusion, water ingress, and temperature.”

Keeping tabs on temperature is of special importance to server farms and other sensitive electronic systems, LaSelle says. “A key area of activity for mobile robotic platforms is patrolling vacant properties and warehouses due to the reliability and low costs attributed to autonomous vehicles,” adds LaSelle.

Goldenberg’s and LaSelle’s portrayals of tasks carried out by mobile robotic platforms is echoed by Sean Thompson, Applications Engineer with MICROMO. (Clearwater, Florida) “Ground-based systems use robotics for surveillance. These platforms are equipped with weapons and cameras.”

Thompson dubs some reconnaissance robots as “throw-bots,” saying these systems are “Small and light robots, robust enough to throw through a window or doorway. The robot is equipped with a camera to see within a building without sending in people.” If the structure is without light, the mobile platform’s camera is equipped with infrared or night vision, Thompson says. Another less conventional robotic application is a small reconnaissance aircraft transported by backpack. “A soldier throws small reconnaissance aircraft into the air which takes off and recover themselves.”

Additionally, Thompson says mobile robotics assist military personnel transport equipment in the field. “In military applications, wearable robotics help soldiers carry a heavy pack load. A robot acts like a pack mule, is fully autonomous, and carries a large amount of supplies.”

Thompson speaks of robotics to help inspect and maintain nuclear weapons. “Mobile robotic systems inspect nuclear missiles. Commonly, such inspection systems were large, requiring several people in protective suits going into containment systems. Now, smaller self-guided robotic systems require only one person in a protective suit going to a certain point and letting the robot go.” The robot is remotely operated outside the containment system, reducing the number of people and the amount of time people are exposed to relatively high radiation levels, Thompson concludes.

Autonomy or Control
The level of autonomy separates industrial robotics from their battlefield counterparts. “Mobile robotic platforms are operated remotely and do not have the autonomy of industrial robots. Security robotic systems are under the total control of the operator, typically military personnel,” says Goldenberg. “Security robots have not yet been made autonomous, given the purpose of the vehicles, especially if armed.” Due to a handful of instances of friendly fire, the trend has been against providing security robot systems the autonomy of their industrial equivalent, Goldenberg recalls.

Consequently, operator fatigue results from people directing mobile robotic systems denied industrial-strength autonomy, says Goldenberg. “I have heard about concerns with operators of military robots being over-loaded and fatigued while controlling the robot. The robot is given some intelligence, but that intelligence is limited.”

The limited intelligence extends to networking the mobile robots with global positioning satellites. (GPS) Again Andrew Goldenberg: “Mobile robotic systems make use of GPS to navigate. The robot will decide how it will get to its destination and is able to detect a target and the rest of the surrounding environment.”

The autonomy of mobile robotic security systems is also on the mind of Rush LaSelle. Autonomous navigation in delivering goods to a manufacturing line or patrolling a peopled space, to monitoring a security fence or mapping terrain are areas integrators work on developing, says LaSelle. “A variety of technologies are ‘meshed’ to provide comprehensive guidance packages that allow autonomous vehicles to accurately navigate unstructured and undefined spaced indoors as well as outdoors.” These systems avail themselves to GPS, sonar, two- and three- dimensional lasers, among other guidance systems, says LaSelle.

Obstacle Course
Mobile robotic platforms used in national security applications must move within unstructured environments. “The ability to operate over challenging terrain and the ability to autonomously navigate in unstructured environments are areas of focus,” LaSelle points out. “The migration of automated systems from factory lines to moving freely throughout facilities and beyond has created demands on system design.”

Dealing with varied terrain places extra demands on the mobile robot’s propulsion system, among other systems. “Power management and new generation drive-train systems utilize advanced materials and highly efficient transmissions to obtain higher speed, accuracy as well as durability to work in a wide range of environments,” explains LaSelle. Enhanced power management comes through more advanced fuel cells and newly designed battery and charging systems.

LaSelle says mobile robotic systems are designed for indoor or outdoor conditions. “Standard systems are designed with a five to seven year service life depending on the application. Radioactive and harsh chemical environments are evaluated on a case-by-case basis as an almost endless array of conditions exist in the Mobile robotic system climbing stairs, courtesy Engineering Services Inc.field.”

ESI’s Goldenberg has a similar take on a mobile robotic platform to navigate within unstructured environments. “The ability of mobile robotic platform to navigate over uneven terrain, such as asphalt in cities, a corridor in buildings, over carpets, or in water, mud, grass, snow, is an issue. These devices must navigate well in all those situations. Most can to a large extent, due to the design of wheels and tracks,” Goldenberg says.

Configuring a robot to ascend and descend obstacles in unstructured environments with ease is a design challenge and uses more power. The system must be able to overcome both regularly shaped obstacles such as stairs and those of an unspecified shape such as rocks, downed trees and other miscellaneous objects. “The design benchmark is the ability to go up a 45-degree incline of a flat surface or irregular obstacles. Sometimes the requirement is as much as 50 degrees or steeper,” Goldenberg says.

Engineers must consider the center of gravity, torque requirements to ascend inclines, mass, and payloads when designing mobile robotic systems for military purposes.

Securing Security Robots

The security of data transmitted to and from mobile robotic platforms, particularly video, is vital in military or law enforcement operations. “The frequency of transmitting video must be secure if using a wireless connection. Transmission is secured both ways so no one or nothing can interfere with the images,” Goldenberg says. The method of image transfer is not in the hands of integrators of these systems, as is usually the case when designing typical industrial robotic work cells. Rather, the video transmission system is integrated by the end-user, such as military or law enforcement personnel.

“The quality of images must be good because those images are the only way the operator knows what the robot does. The operator does not have the robot in a line of sight but could be a mile away,” Goldenberg says.

Sean Thompson of MICROMO concurs, saying, “Video transmission is usually wireless. High definition video requires higher bandwidth and uses an encryption program to prevent hacking into the video feed.”Articulated arm deployed on security robot, courtesy Engineering Services Inc.

Like their industrial counterparts, security robotic systems use vision technology as a key enabler, says LaSelle. “Vision systems enable a vehicle-mounted articulated arm to pick randomly oriented objects from its environment to monitoring motion in security applications. Mobile systems use a variety of sensory inputs including laser, sonar, as well as tactical inputs to enable a vehicle to dynamically interact with its environment.” Vision is used for both navigation and by the end-of-arm tool to pick and place product in warehouses as well as in tending equipment in remote service applications, remarks LaSelle.

The specialized tasks security robots perform require robust equipment, says Ronald Folkeringa, Business Manager at Intercon 1 (Baxter, Minnesota) “End-users tell us the range of motion and the types of stresses the cable needs to withstand. Specifications might state the cable must withstand plus or minus 180 degrees of torsional rotation over one meter for two million flexes, a demanding requirement.”

Cables must withstand cold environments, down to minus 80 Celsius, says Folkeringa. “Based on specifications, we use certain materials for insulation and jackets, to maintain electrical and flexibility properties at those temperatures.”

The need for robotics performing tasks in military applications will continue expanding. “Military applications are a growing market for mobile robotics, and will continue to grow,” says Thompson. “The military is always pushing for new ways to keep their people out of harm’s way.”

DARPA Appeals to Roboticists for UAV Competition

July 20, 2011

Hello, from Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & PR, Robotic Industries Association

The site administrator for contacted Robotic Industries Association with details about the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) competition offered by The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic (SSC Atlantic). With so much  growth in social networking, it was suggested that individuals interacting with our online community might be interested.

According to the information we received, “The ‘UAVForge challenge’ uses crowdsourcing to build small UAVs through an exchange of ideas and design practices. The goal is to build and test a user-intuitive, backpack-portable UAV that can quietly fly in and out of critical environments to conduct sustained surveillance for up to three hours.”

The grand prize is $100,000 and the winning team is given an opportunity to demonstrate its design in a military exercise. The UAV must be suitable for transport by backpack and able to sustain surveillance for up to three hours.

Sponsors of the competition believe that “to be successful we need innovators of every kind; scientists, engineers, citizen scientists and dreamers to collaborate and compete.”

If you visit the site, you’ll find a mix of content and a wide range of examples of technology for drones and other autonomous flying machines. It is quite a mashup of concepts and videos.

Service Robots and their Rapid Rise in Multiple Markets

April 3, 2011

by Adil Shafi, President, ADVENOVATION, Inc.

Industrial robots are characterized by their use in factories.  Almost always they work in a fixed area or move about a linear axis or on a gantry structure; all of which are enclosed by a safety fence.  Industrial robots are defined by the International Federation of Robotics through an ISO 8373 document as: “An automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulator programmable in three or more axes, which may be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications.”6-axis robot from ABB

  • Reprogrammable: whose programmed motions or auxiliary functions may be changed without physical alterations.
  • Multipurpose: capable of being adapted to a different application with physical alterations.
  • Physical alterations: alteration of the mechanical structure or control system except for changes of programming cassettes, ROMs, etc.
  • Axis: direction used to specify the robot motion in a linear or rotary mode.

Service robotService robots on the other hand are mobile, uncontained and extremely diverse. The International Federation of Robotics has a provisional definition for them: “A service robot is a robot which operates semi- or fully autonomously to perform services useful to the well-being of humans and equipment, excluding manufacturing operations.”

With this definition, manipulating industrial robots could also be regarded as service robots, provided they are installed in non-manufacturing operations. Service robots may or may not be equipped with an arm structure as is the industrial robot.

Often, but not always, service robots are mobile. In some cases, service robots consist of a mobile platform on which one or several arms are attached and controlled in the same mode as the arms of the industrial robot. Because of their multitude of forms and structures as well as application areas, service robots are not easy to define.

Service Robots: The Upcoming Profound Impact on Human Life

The advent of service robots for personal human use is a profound new development in the 21st century. Like the industrial revolution, which began to power machinery, and electricity, which began to power devices for personal human use, there have begun, in the last 30 years, two new revolutions, namely computers and robots, to extend the mental (from computers) and physical (from robots) capabilities of human beings, and they are destined to become widespread and pervasive to human life on planet earth.

Google's self-driving autonomous carRobots will, like computers before them, fulfill the quote from Henry Ford: “The true end of industry is to liberate mind and body from the drudgery of existence by filling the world with well-made, low-priced products.”  It is interesting to note that an analogy exists between the transition of mainframe computers to personal computers and between the transition of industrial robots to personal robots.

There are similarities in price and volume curves, third party development and a focus on commercially beneficial solutions; and like the personal computer revolution, the service robotics revolution is now well underway.

Rapid Rise: Opportunities and Challenges

The financial opportunities in these markets have already exceeded several billion dollars, and for components within them e.g., machine vision and mobile platforms, in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and yet these markets are still in their infancy.  Entry points into these markets are accelerating from a variety of corners and initiatives in industry, government, academia, large corporations and small startups.Lockheed Martin underwater autonomous vehicle

There are ample opportunities to form partnerships and coordination amongst these various sectors; each of which brings with it its own strengths and needs to partner with another. Already, hundreds of organizations are involved within these efforts. The attraction for organizations in industry is to extend their expertise from factory applications to a more diverse set of markets that can deliver higher volumes in sales.

Government organizations want to strengthen their research and operations as well as provide dual use benefit, via participating organizations, in the commercial market.  Academia wants to strengthen the quality and appeal, and thereby enrollment, for their technical programs while using their innovations in service robots to extend their financial strength through partnerships with organizations that need their high end intellectual property or technical expertise.  Collectively these interests form a confluence of mutual interest to further the field of service robotics and its widespread adoption.

Stereo camera on mobile robot from University of TorontoAs an example, machine vision and image processing products and technologies play essential roles for these robots, enabling them to capture, store, and interpret data about the world around them, and perform actions based on this data.

Traditionally, the robotics and machine vision industry has excelled at manufacturing, integrating and supporting solutions in factories in static, controlled environments.  Now, with the aid of 3D machine vision and sensor fusion, these capabilities can be extended to mobile, less controlled environments.  These are the opportunities and challenges on the road ahead.

Multiple Markets: Classification and Diversity

Service robot markets can be classified in an extendable manner that guarantees future inclusion in an easy structure, even for applications that we may not have identified yet, in three categories: aerospace, land and water applications. This is so because these are the three major substances that surround our planet and will continue to embody the human experience for at least the next few centuries.  Within these three, the following twenty markets are emerging:


  • Spacecraft – to explore other planets and to collect samples for analysis
  • Satellites – for commissioning in orbit, work aboard stations and maintenance
  • Aircraft – for surveillance, strikes, operations support, cargo, and unmanned use


  • Defense – for bomb threat disposal, combat and transport support, and law enforcement
  • Farming – for tree based fruit retrieval, weather adroit unmanned tractors, and farm work
  • Wildlife – for wildlife identification, tracking migration patterns, and zoo operations
  • Food – for dairy milking, meat tracking and processing, and poultry handling
  • Transportation – for assisted or autonomous driving, lane safety, clearance and security
  • Outdoor Logistics – for construction, demolition, maintenance, and use at gates and docks
  • Office and Warehouse – for mobile telepresence, safer forklifts, AGVs, and mobile ASRS
  • Health: Care – for logistical deliveries and tracking, help on wheelchairs, medical scanning
  • Health: Rehabilitation – for limb locomotive strength, balance, and post trauma retraining
  • Health: Surgical – for minimally invasive, precise operations with reduced adverse effects
  • Entertainment – for education, toys, kiosks, social help, coasters, concerts and filmmaking
  • Home Convenience – for cleaning indoors and outdoors, home chores, and tele shopping


  • Defense and Security – for pirate patrol, ship to ship crane transfers, and threat control
  • Research and Exploration – for exploration in depth for long times, studies, fishing, salvage
  • Preventive Maintenance – for oil rigs, buoys, bridges, dams, pipes, tunnels and sewers
  • Rescue and Recovery – for spill containment and cleaning, search and rescue, DSRVs
  • Entertainment – for simulators, customized tours and submarine tourism

Service robots in the aerospace categories are the most sophisticated with applications that combine high speed vision with high definition and fusion of GPS and satellite data.  Land based applications are the most diverse and highest in volume for human use. Water based applications are probably the most underutilized, yet of great use and potential.

As populations age around the world, service robots will play critical roles in compensating for limited human assistive staff, improving outcomes, extending physical abilities, and enabling many people to live comfortably,  independently, with human and / or pet animal, and / or social robot companions, longer.

Learn and Profit

Obtain “Vision for Service Robots,” an in-depth report that describes emerging innovation, challenges, solutions, opportunities and active companies, universities and government organizations in the Service Robots industry. The report quantifies financial opportunities in various markets and provides a detailed description of initiatives underway in each of them.

Editor’s Note: This article was contributed by Adil Shafi, a professional innovator and President of ADVENOVATION, Inc., with more than twenty years of experience in the robotics and machine vision industry.  He and Conard Holton, Editor-in-Chief, Vision Systems Design are co-authors of the “Vision for Service Robots” market report described above.  For additional information, please contact ADVENOVATION, Inc. at 734-516-6761, or visit

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!