Amazon Picking Challenge aimed at improving warehouse robotics

By David Szondy for Gizmag:  One of the biggest events at the recent 2015 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Seattle was the first Amazon Picking Challenge, in which 31 teams from around the world competed for US$26,000 in prizes. The challenge set entrants with the real-world task of building a robot that can do the same job as an Amazon stock picker.According to Amazon Chief Technology Officer Peter Wurman, who initiated the challenge, the task of picking items off the shelf may seem simple, but it involves all domains of robotics. The robot has to capable of object and pose recognition. It must be able to plan its grasps, adjust manipulations, plan how to move, and be able to execute tasks while noticing and correcting any errors.

This might suggest that the robots would need to be of a new, specialized design, but for the Picking Challenge, Amazon made no such requirement. According to one participant we talked to, the more important factors were sensors and computer modelling, so ICRA 2015 saw all sorts of robots competing, such as the general purpose Baxter and PR2, industrial arms of various sizes, and even special-built frames that move up, down, left or right to position the arm. Even the manipulators used by the various teams ranged from hooks, to hand-like graspers, and vacuum pickups.  Continue reading for competition results:


Clearpath Robotics announced the newest member of its robot fleet: an omnidirectional development platform called Ridgeback. The mobile robot is designed to carry heavy payloads and easily integrate with a variety of manipulators and sensors. Ridgeback was unveiled as a mobile base for Rethink Robotics' Baxter research platform at ICRA 2015 in Seattle, Washington. 

"Many of our customers have approached us looking for a way to use Baxter for mobile manipulation research - these customers inspired the concept of Ridgeback. The platform is designed so that Baxter can plug into Ridgeback and go," said Julian Ware, General Manager for Research Products at Clearpath Robotics. "Ridgeback includes all the ROS, visualization and simulation support needed to start doing interesting research right out of the box." 
Ridgeback's rugged drivetrain and chassis is designed to move manipulators and other heavy payloads with ease. Omnidirectional wheels provide precision control for forward, lateral or twisting movements in constrained environments. Following suit of other Clearpath robots, Ridgeback is ROS-ready and designed for rapid integration of sensors and payloads; specific consideration has been made for the integration of the Baxter research platform.

Paralyzed man can now use his mind to shake hands, drink beer using robotic arm

A man paralyzed by gunshot more than a decade ago can shake hands, drink beer and play "rock, paper, scissors" by controlling a robotic arm with his thoughts, researchers reported.
Two years ago, doctors in California implanted a pair of tiny chips into the brain of Erik Sorto that decoded his thoughts to move the free-standing robotic arm. The 34-year-old has been working with researchers and occupational therapists to practice and fine-tune his movements.
It's the latest attempt at creating mind-controlled prosthetics to help disabled people gain more independence. In the last decade, several people outfitted with brain implants have used their minds to control a computer cursor or steer prosthetic limbs.   Full Article:

ABB's Acquisition of Gomtec Expands Collaborative Robotics Portfolio

ABB, a leading power and automation group, announced it acquired Gomtec GmbH to expand its offering in the field of collaborative robots. The parties agreed not to disclose financial terms of the transaction.

Gomtec, based near Munich, Germany, is a privately held company that develops mechatronic systems combining mechanical, electrical, telecommunications, control and computer engineering for customers in diverse industries. It has 25 employees.

Gomtec's technology platform will strengthen ABB's development of a new generation of "safe-by-design" collaborative robots that can be operated outside of cages or protective fencing, expanding opportunities to deploy them in new applications.

25 teams prepare for 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals

By David Szondy for Gizmag:  On June 5 and 6, the 2015 DARPA Robotic Challenge (DRC) Finals will take place at Fairplex in Pomona, California. Open to the public, it will see 25 international teams compete for US$3.5 million in prizes as part of an effort to develop robots for disaster relief. Here's what to expect.

This year's challenge will see 25 teams competing. Half of the teams are from the United States, five are from Japan, three from Korea, two from Germany, one from Italy, one from Hong Kong, and one from the People’s Republic of China. They will be vying for a US$3.5 million total of prizes; including a $2 million first prize, a $1 million second prize, and a $500,000 third prize. The robots will be of a wide variety with some humanoid, some four-legged, and some tracked, but all will need to operate free of external power, mechanical support, and limited communications with their controllers.

The basic idea behind DRC 2015 is to make things much harder for the robots than previously.

Stephen Hawking fears robots could take over in 100 years

By Sharon Gaudin for ComputerWorld:  Worried that one day we'll have robot overlords? You're in good company.
Reknowned physicist, cosmologist and author of A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking said this week that robots, powered by artificial intelligence (A.I.), could overtake humans in the next 100 years.
Speaking at the Zeitgeist conference in London, Hawking said: "Computers will overtake humans with AI at some within the next 100 years. When that happens, we need to make sure the computers have goals aligned with ours," according to a report in Geek.
This isn't the first time Hawking has spoken about the threat that comes along with machine learning, A.I. and robotics.
In December, Hawking said, "the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."

The 7 Best Cities For Robotics Right Now

RoboUniverse, robotics’ annual meeting of the minds, is rolling out in New York City this week—and in the keynote address today, we learned where the best robotics work in the world is happening.

In it, he shared a list of world cities that are pretty much killing it in the robotics sphere. The innovation centers are, in no particular order:
1.  Boston
2.  Pittsburgh
3.  San Jose/San Francisco (Silicon Valley)
4.  Tokyo
5.  Osaka
6.  Seoul
7.  Munich
What determined this list? Kara said that robot innovation centers all share proximity to “excellent universities,” and regularly contribute to robotics R&D. It’s also hard to deny each location’s contributions to robotics so far: Silicon Valley and Tokyo are gimmes, but not everyone might be aware of the others.

'First heavy-duty collaborative robot' can lift 35kg

Fanuc claims that it is the first robot manufacturer to produce a heavy-duty robot designed to work safely alongside humans. Its CR-35iA robot can perform tasks involving payloads of up to 35kg without needing the protective guards and fences that have previously been needed for robots with similar lifting capacities.
Although there are already several other collaborative robots on the market, most are designed for much lower payloads.
The new robot will stop automatically if it touches a human operator. A soft covering material also reduces the force of any impacts and prevents human operators from being pinched by the mechanism. And if the robot comes too close to an operator, they can simply push it away. The covering has a green colour to distinguish it from Fanuc’s usual yellow robots.
The six-axis robot is designed for duties such as transferring heavy workpieces or assembling parts. By avoiding the need for safety barriers, it is claimed to improve production efficiencies and allow higher levels of automation.

Robotics Emerge to Power Next-Generation Industrial Environments

Dan Dibbern and Laura Studwell for Quality Magazine:  Industrial robots are expected to be the focus for investment in factory automation. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), investment in industrial robots is expected to grow at an annual rate of 12% from 2015 to 2017. The packaging industry is experiencing a surge in robotic integration throughout primary, secondary and tertiary packaging—from processing, assembly, labeling and cartoning to case packing and palletizing.

The driving force behind the surge in robotics sales growth in North America is the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The FSMA is requiring companies to introduce automated machinery and components into the production process to help eliminate potential product quality and integrity issues.

With the FSMA about to publicly release its requirements, the use of robots in packaging is at the point of takeoff. And with recent technical advances in robotics helping to power the new wave of interest, companies are experiencing first-hand that robots are faster, smarter and more affordable than ever before.

Building Enthusiasm for Construction Robotics

Vicki Speed for Inside Unmanned Systems:  It would seem that robotic systems could provide an extra measure of safety, as well as a higher level of efficiency and machine-consistent quality. Yet, to date, the use of robotic systems on construction jobsites has been minimal.  The building industry, however, is looking with fresh eyes at robots—including at least three new systems expected to be available this year—with a focus on near-term efficiencies that make investment in the systems make sense.
Demolition Days
Among the first fully-realized applications of robots in the construction environment are those used to support work that comes at the end of a structure’s life, namely demolition. In fact, remotely operated demolition robots have been around for more than a decade.
Robotic Building Blocks
The short answer is, ‘Yes.’ There are robotic systems in development around the world that can lay bricks, set tile or finish concrete floors.
Bionic Builders?
While not autonomous systems, robotic exoskeletons, those high-tech wearable suits seen in futuristic movies that help mere mortals defend Earth against other beings, could be a very real part of tomorrow’s jobsite and a possible precursor to autonomous robots in the field.

Microsoft HoloLens gets real with robotics, surgery, architecture

Jared Newman for PCWorld:  At the 2015 Build conference, Microsoft tried to prove that HoloLens is more than just a neat gimmick.
The company showed off several new demos for its “mixed reality” headset, which can map digital imagery onto the user’s physical surroundings. While previous demos had focused on fun ideas like a virtual Mars walk and a living room-sized version of Minecraft, the Build presentation emphasized real-world applications for businesses and education.
For instance, Microsoft showed how architects could use HoloLens to interact with 3D models, laid out virtually in front of them on a table. They might also be able to examine aspects of a building site at full scale, with virtual beams and walls rendered before their eyes.
Not all the presentations were so serious. Microsoft also showed off an actual robot whose controls appeared in the virtual space above the robot’s head. Users could then create a movement pattern for the robot by tapping on the ground. Another demo showed how users could create their own personal screens that followed them around in real space.

Fetch Robotics' Fetch & Freight

From Fetch Robotics (the core team from Unbounded Robotics/all former employees of Willow Garage):

The Fetch Robotics’ system is comprised of a mobile base (called Freight) and an advanced mobile manipulator (called Fetch). Fetch and Freight can also use a charging dock for autonomous continuous operations; allowing the robots to charge when needed and then continue on with their tasks. In addition, the system includes accompanying software to support the robots and integrate with the warehouse environment. Both robots are built upon the open source robot operating system, ROS.

Fetch is an advanced mobile manipulator, including features such as:

  • Telescoping spine with variable height from 1.09 to 1.491 meters
  • Capacity to lift approximately 6 kgs.
  • 3D RGB Depth Sensor
  • Back-Drivable 7DOF Arm
  • Modular Gripper Interface
  • Head Expansion Mount Points
  • Pan-Tilt Head
  • Differential Drive
  • ROS-Enabled

Freight is a modular base, used separately or in conjunction with Fetch. Features include:

  • Base Expansion Mount Points
  • Payload support of approximately 68 kgs.
  • 2D Laser Scanner
  • Stereo Speaker
  • Computer Access Panel
  • Run-Stop
  • ROS-Enabled

(full press release)

Planting Trees With Drones

From The Independent:

A drone start-up is going to counter industrial scale deforestation using industrial scale reforestation.

BioCarbon Engineering wants to use drones for good, using the technology to seed up to one billion trees a year, all without having to set foot on the ground... (cont'd) (projects website)


AGROBOT: Strawberry Harvesters


AGB® manages a set of robotic manipulators able to locate and identify your strawberries, selecting them based on their size and degree of ripeness.

This system analyzes your fruit one by one, and it is responsible for ordering cutting movements that guarantee accuracy, smoothness, and sensitivity in the strawberry treatment. The fruit, picked with the strictest hygiene conditions, is driven by our FlexConveyor System to the packaging area. Select the ripeness you would pick up.

AGvision ® is an artificial vision system that identifies your fruit with maximum accuracy and consistency. Its advanced technology, implement in real time a protocol for morphological and color analysis which systematically return the ripeness of the fruit, discriminating exclusively those strawberries which meets the quality standards previously set by the farmer... (more details)

Rethinks New Robot: Sawyer

From Rethink:

Introducing Sawyer – the revolutionary new high performance collaborative robot designed to execute machine tending, circuit board testing and other precise tasks that are impractical to automate with industrial robots. 

Smaller Footprint, Longer Reach

Smaller and lighter weight than Baxter, and with 7 DOF and a 1026 mm reach, Sawyer can maneuver into the tight spaces and varied alignments of work cells designed for humans.

International Availability

With a base price of $29,000, Sawyer will initially be available in North America, Europe, China and Japan, with limited availability beginning in mid-2015.

Intera 3

Like Baxter, Sawyer is powered by the industry’s best and most intuitive software platform, Intera.  It features the same iconic “face” screen (with a refreshed and even more expressive design) that helps it communicate with co-workers, along with the train-by-demonstration user interface that revolutionized how robots can be deployed on factory floors.  Sawyer runs on the same version of Intera as Baxter, and will continue to evolve and improve with regular upgrades... (more details) (more about Intera software) 

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Industrial Robotics - Featured Product

Harmonic Drive Introduces New Lightweight Versions of Select Gearhead Products.

Harmonic Drive Introduces New Lightweight Versions of Select Gearhead Products.

Harmonic Drive LLC, a leader in high precision motion control introduces new lightweight versions of select gearhead products. The new gearheads are ideal for designs where weight is a critical factor. Building on the success of Harmonic Drive LLCs current gear units, new lightweight versions were the next logical evolution of the CS/ SH product lines. With weight reductions of 20-30% without any reduction in torque ratings, the Lightweight (LW) gear units provide exceptional torque density.