Kinect sensor lets manufacturing robot know to slow down or stop when humans are approaching

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We don’t know for sure when robots and humans will become friends, like Robin Williams’ sweet robot character in “Bicentennial Man,” or the dogged determination of R2-D2 from “Star Wars.”

We already do know that robots are playing an increasingly important role in the manufacturing world. And that calling them “co-workers” becomes more and more reasonable – although we’d never try to borrow $5 for lunch from one.

Direct human interaction with manufacturing robots has been limited until today because robots can be hazardous to their human overlords. Whether big or small, robots are often lightning-fast at what they do, and can wind up physically hurting people around them.

Earlier generations of robots had to literally be put in cages, “like at the zoo,” to protect humans, says Dominik Boesl, corporate innovation manager for KUKA AG, one of the world’s leading suppliers of robots and robot-based automation technology.

KUKA created the first industrial robot in 1973, and in 1996, launched a PC-based controller that integrated mechanical devices, software and controllers for the first time. The company’s industrial robots take on many jobs – assembly, packaging, machine loading, material handling, welding and surface finishing – at companies all over the world. KUKA’s robots work in industries ranging from automotive to aerospace. In its factory in Toledo, Ohio, for example, KUKA’s robot production line makes 830 Jeep Wrangler bodies every day.

Today, many robots do their work from behind special industrial-strength fences to keep them separated from human employees. Now, however, “for the first time we have robots we can directly interact with that are no longer endangering humans,” Boesl says.

Perceptive technology allows a lightweight robot to sense its way around a complex task and perform precise automation movements safely and securely. This special feature enables KUKA’s LBR iiwa for human-robot collaboration. (LBR stands for “Leichtbauroboter” in German, which means “lightweight robot,” and “iiwa” for “intelligent industrial work assistant.”)

By using Microsoft Azure IoT services, Kinect hardware and the OPC-UA communication standard, the built-in safety of the LBR iiwa could be used and extended in the Industry 4.0 world by offering additional value-added use cases.

This week in Germany, at Hanover Messe 2015, the world’s biggest industrial fair, KUKA is demonstrating the work it has done to bring humans and industrial robots together in an additional safety use case, using the Kinect sensor with the LBR iiwa robot.

LBR iiwa’s job involves an aspect of dishwasher assembly, plugging hosing into a plastic drain valve on a dishwasher. LBR iiwa is also what’s known as a “sensitive” robot. LBR iiwa doesn’t have any system of vision, but is able to feel the parts it handles. In this case, LBR iiwa feels the end of a piece of hose tubing, then plugs it into the dishwasher’s valve, something that was “simply not possible to do before in an automated way,” Boesl says.

“This couldn’t be done before, because industrial robots were never sensitive, and without sensitivity, they would just break the part,” he says.

But if there is a problem with the part itself – say it’s broken or needs to be changed out – and a human worker is required to check the situation, Kinect’s motion sensor helps both human and robot by letting the robot know to physically slow down, or to stop altogether as the worker physically approaches the area where the robot is working.

“Kinect is actually looking at the space around the robot,” and detecting people walking toward it, says Boesl.

Also by using the Kinect sensor, the worker can be identified as being “qualified,” as someone who is allowed to be in the vicinity of the robot.

If the worker needs to change the tubing, or do other work in the robot’s physical space, once the worker is done, using Kinect, he or she gives the robot a gesture, like a thumb’s up, enabling the robot to start moving again and get back to work.

Helping Kinect do its job is Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure, and KUKA’s Intelligent Industrial Work Assistant app, which runs on a Windows tablet.

Boesl says he sees other ways Kinect could be useful in helping humans and their robot co-workers create a better workplace. KUKA’s corporate research department has been continually experimenting with Kinect since it came out.

Suzanne Choney
Microsoft News Center Staff

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