Starting from the year 2000, we observed that a new generation of robot technologies started appearing. The so called fourth generation of robots consisted of more intelligent robots that included advanced computers to reason and learn (to some extend at least) and more sophisticated sensors that helped controllers adapt themselves more effectively to different circumstances.

This is the second part of: Envisioning The Future of Robotics (I): From Manipulators to Industrial Robots. Click here if you missed it. Together, both where the most read article of the year in 2017 at Robohub, where it was published originally on the 16/03/17

Among the technologies that appeared in this period we’d highlight the Player Project (2000, formerly the Player/Stage Project), the Gazebo simulator (2004) and the Robot Operating System (2007). Moreover, relevant hardware platforms appeared during these years. Single Board Computers (SBCs) like the Raspberry Pi enabled millions of users all around the world to create robots easily.

The boost of bio-inspired Artificial Intelligence

The increasing popularity of artificial intelligence and particularly of neural networks became relevant in this period as well. While a lot of the important work on neural networks happened in the 80’s and in the 90’s, at that time computers did not have enough computational power. Datasets weren’t big enough to be useful in practical applications. As a result, neural networks practically disappeared in the first decade of the 21st century. However, starting from 2009 (speech recognition), neural networks gained popularity and started delivering good results in fields such as computer vision (2012) or machine translation (2014). During the last years we’ve seen how these techniques have been translated to robotics for tasks such as robotic grasping. In the coming years it’s expected to see how these AI techniques will have more and more impact in robotics.

What happened to industrial robots?

Relevant key technologies appeared also for the industrial robotics landscape (e.g.: EtherCAT) however except for the appearance of the first so called collaborative robots, the progress within the field of industrial robotics has significantly slowed down when compared to previous decades. Several groups identified this fact and wrote about it with conflicting opinions. Below we summarize some of the most relevant points encountered while reviewing previous work:

  • The Industrial robot industry — is it only a supplier industry?For some, the industrial robot industry is a supplier industry. It supplies components and systems to larger industries, mainly, the manufacturing industry. These groups argue that the manufacturing industry is dominated by the PLC, motion control and communication suppliers which together with the big customers are setting the standards. Industrial robots thereby need to adapt and speak factory language (PROFINET, ETHERCAT, Modbus TCP, Ethernet/IP, CANOPEN, DEVICENET, etc.) which for each factory, might be different.
  • Lack of collaboration and standardized interfaces in industryTo the date, each industrial robot manufacturer’s business model is somehow about locking you into their system and controllers. Typically one will encounter the following facts when working with an industrial robot: a) each robot company has its own proprietary programming language, b) programs can’t be ported from one robot company to the next one, c) communication protocols are different, d) logical, mechanical and electrical interfaces are not standardized across the industry.As a result, most robotic peripheral makers suffer from having to support many different protocols which requires a lot of development time that doesn’t add functionality to the product.
  • Competing by obscuring vs opening new markets? The close attitude of most industrial robot companies is typically justified by the existing competition in this environment. Such an attitude leads to a lack of understanding between different manufacturers and solutions but in exchange it apparently secures clients and favours competition.An interesting approach would be to have manufacturers agree on a common infrastructure. Such an infrastructure could define a set of electrical and logical interfaces (leaving the mechanical ones aside due to the variability of robots in different industries) that would allow industrial robot companies to produce robots and components that could interoperate, be exchanged and eventually enter into new markets. This would also lead to a competing environment where manufacturers will need to demonstrate features rather than the typical obscured environment where only some are allowed to participate.

The Hardware Robot Operating System (H-ROS)

For robots to enter new and different fields, it seems reasonable that they need to adapt to the environment itself. This fact was previously highlighted for the industrial robotics case where robots had to be fluent with factory languages. One could argue that the same for service robots (e.g. households robots that will need to adapt to dish washers, washing machines, media servers, etc.), medical robots and many other areas of robotics. Such reasoning leads to the creation of the Hardware Robot Operating System (H-ROS), a vendor-agnostic hardware and software infrastructure for the creation of robot components that interoperate and can be exchanged between robots. H-ROS builds on top of ROS which is used to define a set of standardized logical interfaces that each physical robot component must meet if compliant with H-ROS.

H-ROS facilitates a fast way of building robots choosing the best component for each use-case from a common robot marketplace. It complies with different environments (industrial, professional, medical, …) where variables such as time constraints are critical. Building or extending robots is simplified to the point of placing H-ROS compliant components together. The user simply needs to program the cognition part (i.e. brain) of the robot and develop their own use-cases without facing the complexity of integrating different technologies and hardware interfaces.

H-ROS is on active development and the first prototypes are being deployed with partners. If you’re interested to learn more about it refer to http://h-ros.com or drop us a line at contact@acutronicrobotics.com.

The future ahead

With latest AI results being translated to robotics and the recent investments in the field, there’s a high expectation for what’s coming to robotics over the following decades.

As it was nicely introduced by Melonee Wise in an interview not long ago, nowadays, still, there’re not that many things you can do with a $1000-5000 BOM robot (which is what most people would pay on an individual basis for a robot). Hardware is still a limiting factor and our team strongly believes that a common infrastructure such as H-ROS will facilitate an environment where robot hardware and software will be able to evolve. The list presented above summarizes, according to our judgement, some of the most technically feasible future robotic technologies to appear.

This was the second part of: Envisioning The Future of Robotics (I): From Manipulators to Industrial Robots. Click here if you missed it.