Service robots have been a tantalizing dream for many years. Although the imminent arrival of smart helpers to carry out domestic chores or assist in hospitals has been announced many times, not much has changed. But with autonomous vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers on sale in every electronics store, we’re finally getting closer to having an electronic butler. The Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA in Stuttgart has been conducting research in this area for many years. Group manager Ulrich Reiser and his team of engineers have taken an important step toward commercial viability by developing the next generation of service robots: Care-O-bot 4 is a cut above its predecessors.
A versatile helper that will assist older people at home
Fraunhofer IPA’s vision is for its robot to enable seniors in need of some assistance to continue living in their own homes and to delay the often distressing move to the nursing home for as long as possible. To make this vision a reality, the engineers had overcome the challenge of teaching the robot how to move around without bumping into the furniture and how to grip certain objects. It wasn’t until Care-O-bot 3 that the engineers had even found a robot helper that users would accept. Put to the test in nursing homes, this robot demonstrated its appeal time and time again – not only for transportation services but also helping ensure the residents drank enough water throughout the day. But with material costs alone approaching a quarter of a million euros, Care-O-bot 3 proved too expensive for series manufacture.
A nimble three-wheeler
Cue Care-O-bot 4 – performance is up and manufacturing costs are down. This tireless helper has two arms. In collaboration with Schunk GmbH & Co. KG, the engineers have developed a novel one-finger hand that can grasp by pressing its finger to the palm. In contrast to its predecessor, which had four wheels, Care-O-bot 4 moves around on three small, independently driven wheels that are concealed under a round platform and allow the robot to perform virtually any maneuver. A particular highlight of this tireless helper has also been patented by Fraunhofer IPA experts: integrated into its hips and neck are innovative spherical joints that allow the robot to make bending movements without losing its balance. Just like when people bow or bend down, part of the robot’s body moves back. This means that the Care-O-bot can avoid falling over even when it bends while carrying its load with arms outstretched.
To make the system more affordable, the Fraunhofer IPA engineers chose a modular design: you can put the smart helper together in different ways depending on what you need it to do. If you want it to just transport objects, you may decide to replace the robot’s arms with a tray or a basket. You can even vary the number of sensors according to your specific requirements. Different robot platforms can be set up for a wide range of applications – a mobile information point for museums, home improvement stores or airports; or fetch and carry services for institutions or offices. It can even be used for security applications. »The modular concept takes its cues from reality. In science fiction movies, robots tend to be able to do everything a human can do. But in real life, we’re not going to see this kind of all-rounder – at least not in the next few decades,« believes Reiser. »The electronic servant will predominantly be a specialist that handles only certain tasks.«
Attractive design, easy operation
This is the tack the robot’s designers have taken. Unlike existing humanoid robots, Care-O-bot 4 is not going to take the form of a person. »That would raise false expectations, «says Reiser. However, the robot’s slender body with a head and lateral arms makes a friendly impression and its clearly defined lines give the robot a certain charm. The Stuttgart-based company Phoenix Design was responsible for giving Care-O-bot 4 its genial form. The Fraunhofer IPA engineers placed a great deal of value on easy operation. Users are willing to accept help from a robot only when they don’t find it difficult to work with. Care-O-bot 4 has an easy-to-use touchscreen on its head. The robot even has a simple way of indicating certain moods. It does this mainly with the help of expressive eyes that appear on its touchscreen face. What’s more, the robot can perform a series of simple gestures that anyone can understand, such as nodding or shaking its head.
Speech, person and gesture recognition
The electronic butler has excellent manners. It maintains a respectful distance, remains discreetly in the background when you don’t need it and can even bow. What’s more, it lets you know whether or not it has understood your request and keeps you informed about what it is doing. Since the robot is equipped with cameras and a microphone for speech, person and gesture recognition, it even responds to verbal commands and gestures.
But Care-O-bot 4 is not quite a finished product – its primary purpose is as a versatile research platform in the domains of both human-robot-interaction and mobile manipulation. The Stuttgart-based engineers want as many researchers and scientists as possible to use the system so that new applications are continuously being discovered.
That’s not to say that Reiser doesn’t see the potential for commercial use. The robotics expert is toying with the idea of starting his own company, together with some of his colleagues. Reiser is convinced the technology has come far enough to start developing business plans. In the United States, dozens of robot couriers are used in some hospitals to bring meals to different hospital wards. Care-O-bot 4 is more versatile than these appliances and can be easily customised to various tasks and different environmental and economic conditions.