Intuitive human-robot interaction with a smartphone – a project at KUKA Corporate Research

Robotics for everyone – From apprentice to journeyman

The digital transformation is bringing forth intelligent products that make all of our lives easier. After all, who is willing to live without their smartphone in this day and age? Hardly anyone, according to the statistics portal Statista: 4.4 billion smartphone connections were registered in 2017, while the figure was only ten percent of that in 2010. The reason for this success is that smartphones fill our needs in a wonderfully simple fashion: they offer countless possibilities, yet are still easy to operate – a decisive factor in their momentous success. The industrial sector is striving to replicate this blueprint for success, bringing automation to a whole new level.

Increasingly simple control of robots is not an end in itself. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the number of industrial robots worldwide will rise by 14 percent annually until 2020, at which point it will surpass the three million mark. This increase and the need for production to be ever more flexible are the reasons why more and more people are coming into contact with robots. It will be quite a challenge to find enough qualified personnel to handle these machines.

Moreover, the product range in manufacturing is increasing as a result of automation, allowing companies to offer a wider selection. This also requires robots and intelligent machines to be reprogrammed more frequently, ideally without long downtimes. For medium-sized companies in particular, automation is only worthwhile if the robots can be utilized quickly and easily for smaller quantities too.
The automation sector would therefore be well-advised not to delay in developing technologies for easy operation. Looking into the automobile sector the potential here is not limited to graphical programming and voice control. In the latest generation of cars, infotainment systems can already be controlled with gestures.

Never losing sight of the target group
Large companies are increasingly concerned with the question of who the users of their products are and what desires and requirements they may have. “A person always performs a certain role, which in turn can be defined by certain characteristics,” explains Jessica Rademacher, head of the Usability department in KUKA’s Research and Development division. “We are creating software solutions to provide the best possible support for customers in carrying out their tasks successfully, efficiently and to their own satisfaction. The focus is always on the user.”
But opinions vary in terms of whether a device or machine is easy to operate. After all, there are professionals and non-experts in all areas. And the age of the user also plays a role. Precisely these factors must be taken into consideration when developing new buttons, touch screens or controls.

Easy robot control with preprogrammed blocks
The aspects that work well on a smartphone also make the operation of robots easier. As a result, an increasing number of employees are able to program and operate robots without any formal skills. One of the simplifications is to use a widely popular programming language, such as Java, for programming robots. To make robot-based automation user-friendly even for employees who do not possess any programming knowledge, Java commands can be grouped into intuitively configured function blocks. In this scenario, the operator selects function blocks and configures the desired sequence. So the complexity of text-based programming is never even an issue.

Easy programming and operation significantly reduces people’s reservations about working with robots. One example of this has been implemented at the Technical University of Dortmund. The robot-based test environment is designed to train students for future production scenarios, to demonstrate the benefits of automation to companies, and to mitigate people’s reservations. An important feature here is the robot controller, which can be simply programmed and operated by means of graphic elements. Users can select the desired robot program and expand it, if needed, without any special knowledge.

Hello robot – voice control makes it possible
There are also other options allowing robots to be easily commanded. “In the future, I want to be able to control robots by voice,” says Dr. Rainer Bischoff, Head of KUKA Corporate Research. In this respect, robotics can benefit from smartphone developments, where voice-based input is already part of everyday life.

Thanks to more advanced sensors and algorithms, a lot has already happened in this field. Today, robots are capable of mastering even complex tasks with a high degree of autonomy, as Bischoff illustrates with an example: “The task is described orally, pretty much like a command that I might give to a person, ‘I need a terminal. You can find one in our warehouse. Place it in a box and bring the box to my workplace.’ Currently we are working on getting a robot to make decisions autonomously and to execute more demanding and varying tasks independently. In other words, we want to evolve the robot from apprentice to journeyman.”

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