The future is now

By Annika Borkeloh 
Traveling into the future with a time machine – that is something everyone has imagined once or twice in their lifetime. What will the future look like? Let’s find out together and join us on a trip to KUKA Corporate Research.

If you take a look at Corporate Research at KUKA, you will see that the future is slowly becoming the present. This department is where employees work every day on the technologies of tomorrow. Here, components are quickly printed by a 3D printer, robots communicate with each other and learn from each other while performing their tasks. This way they become smarter with every action they carry out. They can also be intuitively operated with a smartphone. In supermarkets, shelves are no longer just filled by humans alone. And if it was up to Corporate Research, robots would do more than just do household chores for the elderly. The areas in which colleagues research and develop are wide-ranging.

Let’s take a closer look at three KUKA Corporate Research projects:

Reliable breast cancer diagnostics

The EU research project MURAB, “MRI and Ultrasound Robotic Assisted Biopsy”, is committed to developing better cancer diagnostics. The goal is to increase the precision and effectiveness of biopsies with the help of an LBR iiwa. An MRI is followed by an ultrasound scan using the LBR iiwa. The “Tissue Active Slam (TAS)” tissue modeling technology developed as part of the project will collate both data sets in one model and identify nodes.

The insertion point of the biopsy needle and the direction are calculated with the information gained. The robot positions the needle holder for tissue removal, the surgeon performs the insertion. The human and robot work hand in hand. “The goal of MURAB is to achieve a standardized and consistent process for quick and reliable breast cancer diagnostics.
In the project, all necessary components are developed and networked: from different imaging techniques through the simulation of tissue deformations to the planning and control of robot movements for supporting tissue extraction,” describes technical project manager Dr. Felix Allmendinger.
“The goal of MURAB is that misdiagnoses can be greatly reduced. This way, you can detect and biopsy even smaller nodes,” explains project team member Johannes Lachner. “The patient receives the results within a few hours, and the process is less expensive for the hospital.”

Innovation in the supermarket

Awkward and time-consuming retail tasks are still not supported by automation. The staff of the EU-funded research project REFILLS, “Robotics Enabling Fully-Integrated Logistics Lines for Supermarkets”, wants to change that. “This raises the question: Why are there no robots in today’s supermarkets?” asks Klaus Miller, the
project leader.

“There are plenty of automated processes at Amazon in the logistics warehouse or in the back room of pharmacies. We want to take further steps towards this vision.” A streamlined transport carrier that can interface with different robotic modules will handle four logistic steps: scan the inventory on shelves, save the product data, pre-sort incoming goods by product category, and bring them to the shelves.
This is followed by filling the shelves with the aid of a collaborative robot system. Surplus goods are returned to the warehouse autonomously. “The burden on supermarket staff increases with growing product diversity and shorter availability cycles. REFILLS aims to relieve employees and give them more time to assist customers. In the future, for example, goods will be pre-sorted in the supermarket and pre-picked for the retail space using mobile platforms,” says Miller, describing the approach adopted by the research project.

A dating platform for service robotics

The potential for service robots is signifi cant, but market developments have not met expectations. “Service robotics is a special line of business. In this sector, solutions are developed for medium quantities and usually at very high costs. Service robotics is more of a product business than a project business,” explains Dr. Uwe Zimmermann.

“On the other hand, service robotics providers are more likely to be compared to system integrators than to traditional robot manufacturers. The technical and financial risks alone are challenging for the many start-ups in this field.”
The SeRoNet research project aims to signifi cantly reduce software development costs in professional service robotics through a platform geared for growth. “Development based on division of labor, in which component manufacturers, system integrators, customers, etc. work together, seems to be a reasonable response to this challenge,” says project manager Zimmermann. “On the other hand, there is a trend away from the traditional value chain towards a value network. SeRoNet will provide an online platform to interlink this value network.” In this joint project, the project partners are working on an open IT platform. “The goal is to collaboratively develop automation solutions that work in a way that makes them suitable for the end user,” explains Dr. Jürgen Bock, Cluster Manager Smart Data and Infrastructures.
Did you know robots can dream? KUKA has been working with partners such as Freiburg University and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) on how to get robots to dream. After three years the RobDREAM project, sponsored by the EU, came to a close as scheduled on 31 January 2018 – the fruition of an unusual idea.

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