Joe Speed, CTO IoT Solutions and Technology at ADLINK, a provider of leading-edge computing solutions, and Nick Fragale, founder of Rover Robotics, which develops industrial-grade robots using ROS, the robot operating system, discussed the use of AI in robotics.
Companies are reluctant to use AI due to different fears. “Most of the concerns I hear around AI have to do with some of the privacy aspects,” says Speed. “You hear people raise concerns when you talk about facial recognition, and some of the other aspects, like AI, applied to topics like mass surveillance. People get a bit nervous. I do not necessarily see that much fear or concerns about AI in the kinds of spaces where we tend to focus. Most of our technology is usually in, on, or near something—like equipment, a process, the work cell, the facility. That’s usually where our AI is being used.
“In these cases, the application of AI is taking an existing process and ensuring that it operates reliably. It helps with machine health and other things. It lets companies take a work cell and make it work more efficiently. And companies can take an existing legacy system, existing machinery, or an existing process and instrument and make it safer.
“In a lot of these applications, we’re not really encountering the privacy concerns related to facial recognition and mass surveillance. The systems are used within your company versus systems that would surveille people in public. In a company setting, the use of AI focuses on making a process or operation better, helping workers do their jobs better. What we see for some of these things is that AI, specifically machine learning applied to computer vision, is very hot. Another very popular use is around sensor fusion. In such use cases, the issue is how do I combine vision with other kinds of sensor data or telemetry from existing legacy equipment and then put those together to have a better understanding of what is going on.”
“Our customers have come from the research and academic space, and so they are very open to using AI” says Fragale. “The average age of our customer is probably somewhere around 30. Now that we’re going to be moving into the logistics market with our new product, the Rover AMR 100, that’ll change. But so far, we haven’t seen any resistance to implementing AI.”
One of the biggest areas AI is being used in robotics is perception, says Speed. “Just think cameras, though it’s a bit more than that. You have many different technologies that can be used to give the robot perception. The obvious one is cameras, but even within cameras, is it a single camera, is it a stereo camera, is it a 3D depth-sensing camera, is it visible spectrum or infrared? Then you also have some other technologies that give perception, which you might almost think of as visual, but they’re a bit different. It’s things like LIDAR. (Light Detection and Ranging is a remote sensing method that uses pulsed laser light to measure distances.) With LIDAR, basically, think of it as radar.
“LIDAR, radar, and ultrasound can aid navigation. They can be used to answer questions like: How does a robotic or autonomous system know where it is, how does it know where it’s going, how does it do that without running into things or people? Then you also have robots that actually interact with their environment. The classic example of this would be when you think about an industrial robot, such as an arm. How does the arm perceive what’s around it? An example of this is robotics parts picking, where an arm picks parts out of a bin and then puts them it into a thing that you’re assembling or into another bin. This is a very popular application. Then you can obviously combine AI and robotics. You also can have mobile robots with actuators with grippers which are able to interact with their environment.
That’s really the whole field of AI machine learning. That’s where we see this being applied.”
The biggest industries using AI and robotics are logistics, manufacturing, and construction, says Fragale. “Those are ones where robots are already using AI to do things. In the case of construction, there’s a lot of companies trying to reclaim the money that’s lost every year from inefficiencies. For instance, making sure that you install all the correct piping and sprinklers and all the safety equipment before you lay the concrete is very important for any construction project. But with a lot of subcontractors involved, there can often be a problem. If you have a robot go around your construction site and look for things like that, things that are critical in the overall construction project, then you can recover a lot of that cost that’s typically lost.”
“We do a ton of business around inspection, specifically visual inspection,” says Speed. “Out in the field, there are 400,000 cameras connected to our vision systems doing this and other kinds of use cases. Where it gets really interesting for me though is instead of fixed cameras on an assembly line, on a workbench, or on a conveyor inspecting things as they go by, is to take the two themes of the AI-based visual inspection and the autonomous robotics and combine those. Think about the robot. Instead of physical goods being brought to the camera, the camera goes to the thing that needs inspection. You have the construction example with mobile robots performing inspections by roaming the site. There’s supposed to be an air duct. Is it in place? Are we ahead of schedule or behind schedule?”
Speed says with the AI vision and robotics, a lot of folks think, is this going to replace a worker? “There are many use cases where the technology helps workers, rather than replacing them. There is a whole field of collaborative robots, which are robots working with people and robots working together, collaborating on a task. For example, look at the things that Rover does. Suppose you have a human that’s doing a function and they have to roam. Say they need to move around a farm to perform a task.
“What if you had the Rover, for the sake of argument, work as an autonomous wheel barrel that follows the worker around and is always right where it needs to be with whatever the worker needs. Imagine robots holding a piece in place while a human does a task, ones where the robots assist the worker.”