Adding an IoT Dimension to Collaborative Robots

Adding an IoT Dimension to Collaborative Robots

Rethink Robotics, a leader in collaborative robots, is now looking to expand on its platform by integrating Internet of Things data features into its robots.

Earlier this month, Rethink Robotics announced the release of its robotic software, Intera 5.2. The new software platform provides critical data insights to manufacturers in real time. For instance, Rethink Robotics’ Sawyer gives operators and line managers valuable data at a glance, including metrics such as cycle time, part count, speed, and force.

This marks the first time that data collection is available from a collaborative robot. Called Intera Insights, it displays key performance indicators (KPIs) via a customizable dashboard on the robot’s on-board display, making it accessible directly on the factory floor. The same charts are also fed back to the Intera Studio platform for other members of the manufacturing team.

Sawyer, the popular collaborative robot from Rethink Robotics, now can operate in the Internet of Things with its new Intera Software. The software turns the robot into a data-collecting device.

We spoke with Jim Lawton, Chief Operating Officer of Rethink Robotics, to learn more about Intera’s latest software developments, what users are looking for from their robots, and what the future of robotics may bring for the next five years.

Looking back at the classes I took seven years ago in robotic programming, we have come a long way in terms of ease and user ability. What are the major updates in Intera 5.2?

You know we're very fortunate to have some customers that we work with who are supportive, vocal, and are constantly giving us ideas. Many of our updates in our software releases come directly from the feedback of our customers and some visionary folks.

So many of our customers are now starting to think about how to use smart robots in conjunction with the Internet of Things (IoT). Many of them have initiatives in IoT, but are unsure where to start. In some cases, people just started storing the data, but they're still kind of unclear what they're going to do with it.

The approach we have taken is to start from the bottom and up; forget about trying to do over complicated processes and let's just start getting some basic data about how things are operating in the work cell and on the line. That's going to help guide us over time to figure out in what way to use the data, how to calculate the proper analytics, and how to apply the data.

This particular release of Intera was released with this goal in mind; to help our customers get started with basic data gathering. It sounds rudimentary, but just having information on cycle time, loop time, or even how many products passed inspection can provide great value.

It’s surprising how many manufacturers don’t have access to basic data; the new software allows our users to get started. Intera Insights drives more informed production decisions and saves manufacturers time and money by eliminating the need to invest in, or create, another data-collection system.        

Along with the data-gathering ability, we have improved our onboard vision by pairing it with external cameras, making it easy to integrate external equipment with our software. This will allow manufacturers to optimize cycle time with improved vision, or leverage in-house vision systems on Sawyer. We added joint indicators on the head so that you can where the robotic arms relative to the range of motion in that joint This gives the robot the ability to untangle its arms. Also new in the release is the ability to edit programmed patterns—not just in the software, but on the head of the robot as well, providing ease of use in programming.

Intera Insights can provide data information directly on the head-up display located on the robot.

In dealing with the ease of the availability of robots and them being integrated into so many aspects of our lives, how does Rethink ensure that a programmer doesn't create robotic errors or malfunctions? With programming languages becoming easier, is the possibility of user error greater? Does the software have built-in safety to prevent misuse of the robot?

Software’s role helps makes robotics ubiquitous. Due to their ease of use, robots will find homes in several industries, including healthcare and even fast-food services. Our robots are safe by design, making them inherently safe. The work that has been done in the controls, from a mechatronics perspective, provides safety via collision detection and object vision detection. This is what places them in the collaborative robot category. From a software point of view, we provide training for our customers, which also helps us determine any software errors that could cause safety concerns from operator use. Safety is a large part of any software release evaluation.

What are examples of the type of data the robot can capture with the new software release?

The robots are force sensing, so they can track and monitor the force being applied over time. They can provide insight into the force being applied at different axes and different points along the work cell. They can provide data on torque, loop count, part count, arm speed, arm location during pattern execution, state of the gripper, and the overall distribution of all this data overtime.

Is that data extractable for the user so that it can be incorporated into other IoT systems?

Currently, you do have the capability to extract the raw data, but you have to be fairly capable with the process and software. It is an expert process today, but in the future, we look to make it more straightforward. We want to make it easy for everybody to be able to bring out the data, so we will be looking at broader and easier-to-use solutions rather than more technically oriented solutions.

I believe that will be the number one request going forward. All of this data is helpful, but how am I going to be able to combine it with other data sources or upload it to the cloud? I suspect that the next wave of updates will be tracking the data and where it will be put into the database and the cloud from a local server. Customers want to be able to start, operate, and analyze that data in even more significant ways, or combine it with data coming from other sources. Then they can start doing some interesting work.

Intera Studio can be found on the programming computer connected to the robot. It allows user access to programming patterns and data insights.

recent report from the Department of Electronic, Information, and Bioengineering at the Politecnico di Milano and the cybersecurity firm Trend Micro, summarized the current state of industrial robotic security. What has Rethink done to ensure that its robots are secure?

Based on the study you are referring to, we went through and looked at a bunch of different robots for potential weaknesses. A handful of things were identified that fell into two categories. One of them consisted of things that we had already identified in a previous release. All of the robots now run Intera 5, so the security issues found in that study related to a previous software build.

However, a couple of the security issues listed in that report were done by design for software-development kit (SDK) users in particular. Several of our users are professors or instructors, and they require root access to the robot software. These users are not operating in the Intera software at all; they control the robot directly through the SDK software build.

Security—not just for robots but all connected devices—will become like the anti-virus model. Hackers are constantly looking for new ways to access your data, and we as users will constantly be looking to try and gain a couple steps ahead in trying to stop them.  

Where do you think the future of robots is heading?

It’s a really exciting time to be thinking about the role that robots are going to play. They're going to evolve over time and start taking on interesting tasks. Five years from now, we're going to look back at what has been achieved with robots and not believe it to have been possible. As much as people can list the next five cool features of robotics, there are going to be five features no one ever expected to be achievable.

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