Sensors help control the collaborative robots of the future

The ongoing development of small, powerful, and flexible robots that collaborate with humans is progressing in leaps and bounds. These robots, often referred to as “cobots,” are rapidly becoming commonplace in most manufacturing settings. Sensor intelligence from SICK plays a vital role in not only orienting and positioning mobile cobots, but also in reliably monitoring the surroundings. Smaller and more flexible systems now make it suitable for a wider variety of applications.

The newest development in this area is lightweight cobots. These mobile cobots typically weigh little more than 30 pounds. Automated guided vehicles transport the cobot to a workstation and it then autonomously positions itself to the appropriate position. These cobots are making fence-free and flexible work the standard in robotics, establishing a new foundation for functional automation.

Gone are the days when the majority of industrial cobot applications incorporated fixed guards to make it safe for humans and robots to work together. SICK’s complete range of sensor solutions for robots and mobile platforms are being employed in this area: robot vision, safe robotics, end-of-arm tooling, and position feedback.

Cobots and Mobile Platforms Unite

The advantages of collaborative robots are readily apparent. Cobots are either permanently integrated into the production line or, more recently, installed on mobile platforms. This makes it especially suitable for flexible applications, in particular ones that need to be temporarily employed in production lines.

With the ability to have temporary cobot stations setup, manufacturers can further boost productivity by drastically reducing the time required to set up a cobot at its workstation. But exactly how is this achieved?

By employing sensor solutions from SICK, a cobot can move to its workstation and reliably position itself. The cobot is combined with an automated guided vehicle (AGVs) system to create a mobile unit that can autonomously find its safe position and independently carry out any necessary base corrections with the aid of a robot guidance system. Robot guidance systems, such as the PLR from SICK, are especially suited for this task.

As it moves into position, these mobile units must pose no risk to surrounding people or machines. The platforms also may need to travel through narrow passageways in production, requiring top-of-the-line safety sensors in place to avoid collisions.

Sensor and system solutions from SICK help to reliably protect people and property from collisions, while at the same time collecting all necessary data for the dependable and flexible navigation of AGVs. These vehicles can even manage high speeds when going around curves thanks to the switching of protective fields.

The Language of Collaboration

A cobot solution can be implemented efficiently by utilizing Robot Operating System (ROS), an open source framework for the development of collaborative robot solutions. Thanks to a very active community, it has found its way into industrial applications around the world in recent years.

Here, too, SICK is in step with the times and working on an equal footing with its partners to bring cobots to life with the help of ROS. Small- and mid-sized companies, in particular, can benefit from this because it enables them to save on development costs and resources.

Robots without Fences, Sensors without Limits

A cobot generally has a high level of movement flexibility on account of its degree of freedom. Therefore, a wide range of sensor solutions are required to protect the entire working space when in use. SICK’s broad portfolio offers solutions for all aspects of this application.

Safety laser scanners not only guarantee the reliable positioning of cobots in the workspace, but also protect workers nearby. This includes monitoring the surroundings using safety laser scanners, which reduce the speed of the cobot when a person approaches. An automated restart after a complete stop that requires no manual intervention from the worker is also part of the solution.

Furthermore, the motor feedback systems integrated into the cobot reliably and dependably report the position of the robot arms to the controller. This data enables the entire Cartesian workspace, right through to the end-of-arm tooling, to be securely monitored.

The Last Mile of Robotics

In the logistics industry, experts refer to “the last mile” as the final, fully-automated step in delivering goods to the customer. In robotics, “the last mile” describes the great challenge of ensuring that a deployed robot operates in a safe manner and can be controlled right down to the last inch.

In the case of precisely calibrated robots working in an open space with no protective fences, meeting this challenge calls for great mastery and sophistication. It is the interplay of a large number of sensors, especially the motor feedback systems, that allows safe and trouble-free end-of-arm tooling on the gripper.

New solutions aimed to completely eliminate injuries to workers’ hands will be available soon. These will employ 2D and 3D image-based robot vision solutions, proving that SICK has the last mile in robotics firmly in mind.

SICK has decided to take an in-depth look at the issue of safety in industrial automation, and the technologies needed to create a safer working environment. Read our free industry report on the topic today!