Exoskeletons, virtual technologies bring robotics, humans closer together

Innovators develop ways to make people more efficient using exoskeletons and virtual technologies to bring humans and robots together. Do you have what it takes to be a robo-worker?
By Tanya M. Anandan, RIA September 7, 2018

Figure 1: Screenshot of software user interface that continually monitors a human-robot collaborative workspace for safe operation. Image courtesy: Veo Robotics, Inc./Robotic Industries Association (RIA)One of the challenges of the age of robots in manufacturing is to make it easier for humans and high-performance robots to coexist and collaborate. One startup in Cambridge, Mass., is developing technology to meet that challenge.

"We believe humans and robots have very complementary strengths and a lot can be achieved by allowing them to work together collaboratively," said Clara Vu, cofounder and vice president of engineering for Veo Robotics, Inc., in Cambridge, Mass. "There are tasks throughout manufacturing where human dexterity, judgment, and flexibility can be effectively combined with the strength, speed, precision, and repeatability of robots.

"Power and force limiting robots are clearly an important step, but they only solve a piece of the problem," Vu said. "We’re seeing customers coming to us with applications where, for example, they want a robot to pick up a heavy part and hold it in a particular location while a worker performs an operation on it."

Vu sees a lot of demand for a system that can leverage a standard industrial robot’s incredible power, speed, and sub-millimeter precision, but have the ability to work collaboratively with people. Veo’s cofounders have their sights set on tapping into this demand.

Established in 2016, the startup secured seed funding from Siemens Venture Capital (now next47). Last October they hit the ground running with $12 million in Series A funding from GV (formerly Google Ventures) and Lux Capital.

Veo seeks to bridge the gap between humans and robots by helping robots better perceive their surroundings and be able to "understand" what’s going on in a workcell.

"The way our system is different from setting up a laser scanner, for example, and hooking that up to a functional safety unit, is that our system understands what’s going on in the workcell and understands what the robot itself is doing. We’re doing that in 3-D, which makes the system much more flexible and able to react to someone reaching out a hand versus stepping into a workcell."

Veo’s system is a combination software-hardware solution, Vu explained.

"Our system hardware consists of custom, safety-rated time-of-flight (ToF) sensors that send data to a high-performance, embedded computer that runs our computer vision and robot control algorithms. The computer lives in the workcell and communicates directly with the robot controller."

The system is designed to work with any robot from any of the major manufacturers. It will ship with four depth ToF cameras, which Veo expects to cover most manufacturing workcell applications, although Vu said they are building the system to be configurable up to eight cameras for more complex environments.

"Our system can track robots, workpieces, and people through the scene and know if the situation is safe based on where those objects are."

If a camera’s view becomes blocked for any reason, the system defaults to the safest position. The system will allow the robot to move if it can be sure the robot’s movement is safe.

Veo already is working with a number of partners including automakers and their Tier 1 suppliers. They are also looking at applications in material handling, metal manufacturing, and appliance manufacturing, areas where humans and robots still tend to be separated.

"Today, when a manufacturing engineer designs a process they’re thinking, is this a manual process or an automated process?" Vu said. "What we really want them to be able to do, and what we’re seeing demand for across the board, is to say what elements of this process should be done by a person and what elements should be done by a robot."

It’s the essence of human-robot collaboration. Applying the unique strengths of each and bringing them together for the optimal solution. Co-robotics is revealing itself in interesting ways on the factory floor.

Exoskeleton vest

What could be more collaborative than a robot that someone wears? Exoskeletons have one of the most intimate relationships with humans. The only devices surpassing that level of collaboration are robotic medical devices that work inside the body.

Assembly line workers at Ford Motor Company are donning the EksoVest, an upper-body exoskeleton made for the industrial space by Ekso Bionics in Richmond, Calif.

You might not think of exoskeletons as robotic, especially unpowered exoskeletons like the EksoVest. But researchers around the globe are exploring alternative means of actuation that are often more affordable, lighter, safer, and unpowered.

ABI Research includes unpowered exoskeletons in their report on robotic exoskeletons, predicting the market to hit $1.8 billion by 2025. Industrial exoskeletons are expected to represent some of the strongest growth. Ekso makes unpowered exoskeletons for the industrial arena and powered exoskeletons for rehabilitation applications. Ekso makes a good case for unpowered exoskeletons, especially for upper-body support.

"Foundationally, exoskeletons have to be collaborative because you’re putting a device onto a human body and if they don’t work together to perform the intended task, the human will reject the device," said Claire Cunningham, user experience manager at Ekso. "We want to complement and support the user to do their task versus inhibit them. Especially with the EksoVest, which is designed for all day use. We have people wearing it eight hours a day on the automotive line, so comfort is of utmost importance. That’s a really hard challenge to drive force into the human body and make it comfortable at the same time."

Figure 2: An exoskeleton helps support a worker’s upper body while he performs repetitive overhead work drilling underbody car panels. Image courtesy: Ford Motor Company/Robotic Industries Association (RIA)The EksoVest is designed to elevate and support a worker’s arms in order to assist with tasks ranging from chest height to overhead work. The vest weighs just under 5 kg, but you don’t feel the added weight because it’s distributed over different areas of the body. It supports up to 6.8 kg per arm.

"You don’t have to think about it when you’re wearing it," Cunningham said. "A hip belt transfers a lot of the weight of the device into the user’s hips and pelvis, which can take that load. Also, backpack straps and arm cuffs channel the force coming from the actuator and spring system, and then transfers it into the arm in a very strategic way. You can hold a tool up to 15 lb. (6.8 kg) in your hand and it will support that all day."

Wearable co-robotics

Ekso is quick to point out their vest is not a lift-and-carry assistive device. It’s not meant to give you superhuman strength, a common misconception about many exoskeletons.

"This is a marathon device versus a power-lift device," Cunningham said. "It will help your endurance and you will really notice the benefit after a couple of days. You will have more energy and your arms will be less tired, and you will feel better. Our goal with this device is to prevent injury that is commonly seen on jobsites where you’re working overhead all day."

As you begin to raise your arms the mechanical actuator kicks in and starts to provide a little boost for your arms. Applications include any type of repetitive overhead work like underbody panel drilling on automotive assembly lines, or exhaust system installation. The vest also can be used in construction environments where workers are performing overhead plumbing and electrical work, industrial painting, acoustic panel ceiling installation, and industrial sanding.

Ford has been piloting the EksoVest for just under a year and beta testing different iterations of the device. Cunningham said the partnership with Ford has provided helpful insights into how the exoskeleton works on the job.

"We’ve taken the feedback from Ford and various other pilots, and put that into design changes. Now we’re working toward distributing these vests to the market," Cunningham said.

The EksoVest can be personalized. The soft goods, which include the hip belt, arm cuffs, and backpack straps come in different sizes. You also can change the amount of force provided to the user by adjusting springs within the actuator.

"We can also adjust the actuators independently of each other," said Kevin Dacey, lead engineer on the EksoVest project. "For example, if someone is drilling underbody panels on a car line, they could have a drill in one hand and in the other hand they are usually handling nuts and bolts, so they may want more force on the driver arm and less force on the other arm."

There is some intelligence engineered into this device, but it’s all mechanical. Unlike today’s industrial robots which are electromechanical machines, these are passive devices. No motors. No electricity.

"Not all exoskeletons have to be electrically or battery powered," Dacey said. "The mechanical design is more affordable, more durable. In the industrial space, these workers are wearing the vest eight hours a day, five days a week. They don’t want to have to remember to charge it every night."

"It requires a lot less power to mobilize upper extremities than the lower extremities," Cunningham said. "With our rehab exoskeleton, it is an electromechanical device and it takes an incredible amount of torque to bring someone up from sit to stand. It’s almost overkill to have electromechanical power for an upper-body exoskeleton." Robotic exoskeletons are still a new frontier. Cunningham said the field is evolving constantly.

"You’re going to see a lot more mechanical exoskeletons out there, because they are a lot more affordable," she said. "With affordability will come accessibility. Mechanical exoskeletons are the solution for the everyday person. We envision in the next 10 years that there will be an exoskeleton in every single home. Your DIYer will be able to buy one of these at their local hardware store. That co-robotic relationship in the near future will be a mechanical one."

Mechanical, electromechanical, hydraulic, and bio-inspired robots come in all configurations. Just like people. Hang out in the robotics field long enough and you start to see things differently. You see the trials and failures, the setbacks and successes, and your eyes are opened wide. It’s easy to marvel at the progress, but also easy to understand the challenging road ahead.

You become acutely aware of the amazing capabilities of the human body and mind. More astonishing, you find yourself crediting robots for helping you appreciate the unique faculties humans possess and take for granted every day.

Our creativity, imagination, perception, dexterity, and incredible capacity for empathy and critical thought. How can robots ever compete? They shouldn’t have to. Humans and robots are more powerful as a team.

Tanya M. Anandan is contributing editor for the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) and Robotics Online. RIA is a not-for-profit trade association dedicated to improving the regional, national, and global competitiveness of the North American manufacturing and service sectors through robotics and related automation. This article originally appeared on the RIA website. The RIA is a part of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, cvavra@cfemedia.com.