Southwest Research Institute’s ‘Cobots’ Work in Harmony with Humans

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A KUKA iiwa robot in the Collaborative Robotics Laboratory at Southwest Research Institute.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

A KUKA iiwa robot in the Collaborative Robotics Laboratory at Southwest Research Institute.

Southwest Research Institute recently announced the launch of its Collaborative Robotics Laboratory, where researchers are innovating new ways for collaborative robots, or cobots, and people to work side by side.

Cobots, unlike industrial robots, are designed to safely coexist with their human counterparts. The laboratory serves as a testing ground to develop software solutions for the institute's customers in the advanced manufacturing sector.

Robots have been used in heavy industry for decades – most of them kept in separate areas from where human employees work. These industrial robots have not traditionally been equipped with sensors and can exert force powerful enough to crush someone.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 61 people died as a result of robot-caused workplace injuries from 1992 to 2015.

Cobots use 3D sensors such as the ones that Microsoft employed with its Xbox Kinect Adapter, a motion-sensing camera that allowed gamers to manipulate their virtual environments but was discontinued earlier this year.

Equipped with cameras and powered by algorithms, the cobots can also parse the surfaces of objects, for example, to determine how it should be picked up.

The robots also are mindful of their human counterparts. Jorge Nicho, a research engineer at SwRI, demonstrated how a two-foot robot arm can respond to its environment.

"It's OK with being abused physically," Nicho said jokingly as the mechanical arm was heartily shoved. The arm retracted, responding to the push by safely settling back into a place.

Jorge Nicho, mechanical engineer, programs a KUKA iiwa robot in the Collaborative Robotics Laboratory at Southwest Research Institute.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Jorge Nicho, mechanical engineer, programs a KUKA iiwa robot in the Collaborative Robotics Laboratory at Southwest Research Institute.

The smaller robots Nicho works with are prototypes designed for the lab. The software and hardware modifications can then be scaled up to much larger robotic devices. And software for these cobots often can be modified in as little as one day.

SwRI is the manager of a global consortium that oversees the Robot Operating System-Industrial, or ROS-I, which uses an open-source framework for programming robots to the benefit of heavy industries.

The lab features meeting space that hosts workshops to train people to program robots. SwRI also manages the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center's south central region, whose coursework will be used to teach manufacturers how to incorporate robotics into their supply chains.

"The cost comes down – the cost of the actual manipulator itself as well as the cost to actually implement [the robotics tools]," said Matt Robinson, program manager at the Collaborative Robotics Lab.

"The idea to open up a Collaborative Robotics Laboratory serves multi functions. No. 1 people want their collaborative solutions to be actually collaborative potentially as well as do more."

Robinson said the advancements the robotics team at SwRI is making serve not to eliminate the human from the workspace but prop them up for success.

"That's the future – the coalescence of advanced robotics software, innovations in collaborative hardware designed to enable safer more productive workspaces for machines and humans," he said.

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