CWRU students to research human-robot factory interactions

Lev Pearlman, Staff Reporter

Case Western Reserve University engineering students are working with engineers from Missouri University of Science and Technology and the University of Florida on a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project to research what human-robot interactions will look like in factories of the future.

The project will be tested in Michigan by the COsorizio MAcchine Uensili (COMAU), a manufacturer based in Turin, Italy and the Institute of Intelligent Industrial Technologies and Systems for Advanced Manufacturing of the National Research Council of Italy.

According to RobotWorx, automation is hardly a new concept. As early as the ninth century, there have been records of automatic devices created to make tasks easier. It was in 1921 that robots first developed a negative reputation. In a play titled “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” the robots revolted against their human masters and killed them, then destroyed all life on earth. This play was set in the 1960s, coincidentally right when industrial robots appeared on the scene.

In the past few years, human-robot collaboration (HRC) has grown around the world as the next big thing in intelligent manufacturing. HRC allows for robots and humans to collaborate on the factory floor on tasks. The robots assist human workers, doing the heavy lifting and handing them the correct tools as they need them.

The robots will learn to track a human worker’s motion, and through doing this predict what the worker is going to do next in completing the task. Gaining this contextual awareness, the robots will be able to know how to assist the worker, for example when to hand the worker which tool.

Robert Gao, chairman of the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the Cady Staley Professor at the Case School of Engineering, is representing CWRU on the NSF project to research different aspects of HRC in manufacturing.

Gao’s team will be focusing on the prediction part of HRC. They will be working on teaching robots to be able to recognize human motions across different workplace scenarios.

In the future, robots will also be used to train new workers as they will already know what tools are needed at each step and can guide the new workers through a task. The ultimate goal is to use robot labor to make factories safer and more efficient.