Rise of the Machines

A Spanish research organization is making progress in efforts to enable robots to safely work side-by-side with humans.


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In my view, the robot in the picture above was one of the more striking exhibits at the BIEMH trade show in Bilbao, Spain, last month. Granted, the primary focus of my trip consisted of the latest Spanish machine tools and associated technology that can help improve manufacturing productivity today, and there was certainly plenty to see in that respect. The appeal of this display, however, had more to do with what it said about the factories of tomorrow.
Those factories could very well be settings in which humans and robots work together intimately—that is, without the barriers and cages that sequester today’s industrial robots for safety reasons. Judging from the capabilities of this particular model, reportedly one of the first HIRO (Human Interactive Robot) platforms from Kawada Industries to be worked on outside of Japan, that long-sought-after robotics milestone could be closer than we think.
The robot was displayed by Tecnalia Research & Innovation, a privately run Spanish research center headquartered in San Sebastian. According to one representative at the booth, the model incorporates four cameras—two of which constitute the robot’s “eyes” and two of which are located on each of its “hands”—as well as torque sensors on each “hand” to help carry out programmed tasks. Partially through the use of these systems, the robot is able to distinguish between people and other objects and will automatically shut off if it comes into potentially harmful contact with a human. 
Similar work is underway much closer to home. At Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, a research team is working to simulate visual perception in a way that would enable a robot to “see” the physical world in 3D space, just like a human, to facilitate true interaction with people. Very cool stuff—click here to learn more. 

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