The efficiency of robot hardware is being optimised by the relentless development of software. Steed Webzell reports on this rapidly evolving technology area

There are countless drivers in robot software at present, all of which are intrinsically linked to hardware design. Indeed, according to industrial robot specialist Comau, to achieve the best performances, robot designs must be based on a cross-functional approach. 

“The ability to simulate and program robots offline enables us to find the best hardware and software combination for specific automotive applications,” says Comau’s engineering director Enrico Mauletti. “Among the biggest drivers in robot development software at present are safety, Human Machine Interface [HMI] capabilities and dedicated application software. Bearing in mind that Comau is usually able to conduct 100% of its programming offline, there is a limited need for complex programming in the field. However, one of our objectives in furthering the development of the HMI is to adopt a more user-friendly approach.”

Going offline

Offline programming is a key sector trend and is the primary reason why Visual Components and Stäubli Robotics have announced a new collaboration. A Stäubli add-on now connects straight to the CS8 controller in the Stäubli Robotics Suite, enabling users to create VAL3 programs directly in simulation. The robot program can then be downloaded and verified. Underlining the trend, Toshiba Machine has also announced a partnership with Visual Components that will deliver a simulation suite to permit the modeling of robotic applications. According to Toshiba, offline programming capability provides flexibility by allowing the user to analyse and optimise. Programs can be created directly in simulation, post-processed and sent to a real system. This way, users can see from the simulation how to cut down on waste movements and save material costs. The software can be used by production engineers and manufacturing management, and doesn’t require special skills, extensive training or software programming knowledge.

Sean J Murphy, Fanuc Robotics UK’s regional sales manager, agrees that ease of programming is essential in automotive environments. “Robotic tasks are often complex and so need to be programmed easily and – more importantly – understood easily,” he says. “The Fanuc robot operating system does not use a typical domestic operating system such as Microsoft Windows, adding security as the robots are not susceptible to external threats and viruses.” Murphy can recite many instances where the development of software applications has, in fact, eliminated the need for hardware. For instance, Fanuc Robotics says it was the first to develop high-speed collision detection software, which has reduced the need for additional external collision sensors. Other software breakthroughs include dual check safety functions that increase operator safety, improve cycle times and reduce floor space.

Look who’s talking

Software that will allow industrial robots to ‘converse’ with people is being developed at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. The code will be used to help robots complete tasks more efficiently and could pave the way for human-torobot business meetings. Computing scientists behind the development – which is funded by a £1.1m grant from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council – say they hope the new systems will build trust between machines and humans, and increase efficiency – both operationally and financially – across industry.

Dr Wamberto Vasconcelos from the University of Aberdeen’s School of Natural and Computing Sciences says: “Robots can quickly process huge amounts of information when deciding how to act. However, in doing so, they can make mistakes which are not obvious to them or to a human. Evidence shows there may be mistrust when there are no provisions to help a human understand why a robot has decided to perform a specific task, at a particular time, in a certain way.”

The systems being developed use technology called Natural Language Generation (NLG) – whereby complex information and data is translated into simple text summaries. This enables a robot and a human to discuss a plan before a task is undertaken. Via a keyboard, the human can then further interrogate the computer, asking it to provide justifications for its decisions, or provide additional information for the robot to integrate into its plans.

Combined power

The latest software developments at Fanuc are focused on a ‘more-in-one’ strategy utilising the processing power of the robot controller. Currently all Fanuc robots have 2D and 3D vision capability where the image is processed in the controller, and further software developments are in hand to enhance this feature with additional functions. On this subject, the most recently introduced Fanuc controller, the R-30iB, has benefits that include a 77% reduction in floor area. This is because the overall volume of the R-30iB is reduced by 68% – measuring just 500mm x 600mm x 470mm. The design provides further advantages in multi-robot systems where the controller is able to stack up; three stacked controllers reduce the floor space required by 77%. In addition, more than 4,096 I/O are supported, along with 40 axes and eight motion groups. There are also up to four line tracking encoders and support for common industrial communication/bus systems.

Making programming and interaction easier is the new Fanuc iPendant Touch, which comes with a 4D graphic function. The new pendant provides real-time visualisation of processes on its touch screen monitor. Typically, using 3D graphic simulations, the programmer can save time by seeing all active safety zones both when programming and importantly, when recovering. Improved software features on the new controller include Learning Vibration Control, which increases robot speed and acceleration for a given path, providing typical cycle time improvements of 8-10%.

Compact control

Denso has also announced recent developments in this technology area with the launch of what it claims is the world’s most compact industrial robot controller in the 3kW output class. The new Denso RC8 controller is 60% smaller and 45% lighter than the company’s previous model, offering a footprint of 300 x 450mm and a height of 95mm. The RC8 can communicate with over 100 different types of devices using Denso’s ORiN open resource interface networking system. Its range of communication interfaces includes 100 Base-T Ethernet, mini/hand I/O, RS-232C and USB as standard, plus CC-Link, DeviceNet, EtherCAT, EtherNet/IP, parallel discrete I/O, Profibus and Profinet as optional.

Of course, open source is a hot topic in the robotics arena right now, as this would make it possible to enjoy a world where industrial robots use a common software language, where reduced integration costs fuel growth, and where industrial automation enjoys the same exponential rate of progress as computers and mobile devices.

Seeking to make these goals a reality is the ROS-Industrial program initiated by Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. ROS is an open source project that provides a common framework for robotics applications. Among the project’s latest industrial partners are Willow Garage, a specialist in this area, and Adept Technology, a provider of intelligent robot solutions. The program’s objective is to merge the development opportunities offered by open source software with the precise demands of manufacturing. ROS software is free for anyone to use and change, and free for other companies to commercialise. As has been proven in other fields, an open source approach can enable innovation and help ensure that the adoption of robotic technologies is a transparent process: a development good for all.