How robots are making our lives easier

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Who wouldn’t appreciate being liberated from domestic chores such as cleaning, ironing, cooking or mowing the lawn from time to time? Even if the task in question were performed by a machine. There is already a huge market for service robots. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), more than 3.7 million fully automatic lawnmowers, window cleaners and vacuum cleaners were sold worldwide in 2015 – a figure that is expected to rise to 30 million by 2019.

When a lawnmower becomes part of the family

Some people become so fond of their mechanical helpers that they even give them names: “Günther” keeps their floors clean during the week, while “Oskar” glides soundlessly over the lawn on Sundays, keeping the grass nice and trim. Sooner or later they become part of the family, writes one proud owner of a robot lawnmower in an online forum. The emotional bond between human and machine is in fact an important aspect when developing service robots. “They are part of our daily lives. To achieve maximum acceptance, they need to be easy to operate and perceived as friendly”, says Martin Hägele, head of the Robot and Assistive Systems department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA in Stuttgart.

Multitalented robots

Engineers at the Fraunhofer IPA have been working for more than ten years on the next generation of domestic robots: versatile, multimedia-capable platforms that communicate with their users – not only via a screen, but also by means of words, facial expressions and gestures. “This new generation of service robots will be able to perform much more than just one task”, reports Martin Hägele. What he has in mind is a flexible household assistant capable of serving drinks, watering the flowers or tidying away the crockery. “Sooner or later it will be able to cook simple meals or even iron a shirt.”

A real gentleman

Care-O-bot, a service robot developed by the Fraunhofer IPA, already comes pretty close to meeting these requirements. The fourth generation prototype was developed in collaboration with product designers at Phoenix Design, one of the world’s most creative “innovation hothouses”, and Schunk, a mechanical engineering firm specialised in robotic gripper systems. The service robot glides elegantly and seemingly effortlessly around the room. Thanks to a joint between chassis and torso – a kind of hip – it can tilt and bend in all directions. The versatile shoulder and arm joints with grippers give the robot a wide range. Equipped with sensors and software, it not only reacts to the human voice but can even identify the mood of its human master from facial expressions. The aim was not to design a human-like machine but to give the machine a character – that of a gentleman.

Applications in many different areas

All kinds of applications are conceivable for the latest generation Care-O-bot. For six months in 2016, a version named Paul greeted customers in a German consumer electronics retailer and guided them to the products they wanted to see. The robot could also be used as a hotel porter or as an attentive and versatile transportation unit in a hospital. Based on a similar concept, several Fraunhofer institutes teamed up with mechanical engineering companies in the AgriApps (only in German) project to develop a service robot capable of performing small manual agricultural tasks. Weeding, planting seedlings or harvesting – for each activity the robot is kitted out with the corresponding hardware and software.

Robotics at 80 sites around Germany

At around 80 sites in Germany – at universities, research institutions and in companies – researchers and designers are hard at work in the field of robotics. It is not always about coming up with a concrete application as yet. Computer scientists at the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology for example want to work out exactly how software needs to be designed in principle so as to facilitate interaction between technical systems and human beings. At the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Tübingen meanwhile, researchers are studying the fundamental principles of how systems – both natural and manmade – interact with their environment and organise themselves. Answers to these basic questions could make service robots even more friendly and competent assistants in future.