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The more intelligent machines become in the digital age, the more closely they will work side by side with human beings: it will not be long before a robot on the production line will be interacting with its human colleagues. It will know when they are tired and need a break or a change. Such robots need very special capabilities: intuitive operation, for instance via language or gestures, and highly precise sensors. Only then will man-machine interaction run smoothly.
Care-O-bot 3, a highly sensitive robot of just this kind, has been developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA) in Stuttgart and is now ready for series production. This electronic butler, which is slightly shorter than an average man, moves quietly and smoothly through rooms and corridors. It navigates using cameras installed in the rooms and has sensors in its “skin” which react to touch. Equipped with a robotic arm and a swivelling interactive display, Care-O-bot 3 is able to take receipt of parcels at the front door and hand them over to the recipient, serve drinks or regularly fetch the blood pressure monitor.
Help for senior citizens
For senior citizens, life with a personal robotic assistant could prove to be a viable alternative to an old people’s home, as the robot’s functionality can be expanded considerably thanks to the Internet: if for example Care-O-bot 3 has fetched the blood pressure monitor, the readings can be forwarded to a service centre and monitored. If necessary, service centre staff can talk to the patient directly via the built-in camera or arrange a consultation with a doctor.
Service robots for industry: careful and tireless
Service robots can likewise provide useful assistance in industry. The Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation (IFF) in Magdeburg for example is collaborating with mechanical engineering and software firms to design a robot capable of handling sensitive materials. ISABEL – an innovative autonomous and intuitively operated service robot for efficient handling and logistics – is currently undergoing laboratory trials. It takes trays of test-tubes from one place to another without causing damage to the valuable samples.
For an industrial robot to be able to do precision work with great care, it needs to have a very accurate perception of its environment. The researchers at the IFF have therefore designed a special light-field camera. Comprising 15 individual cameras, it gives the robot such sharp “eyes” that it can even distinguish between transparent or shiny objects – the sort of things conventional robots tend to overlook.