The Power of Autonomous Mobile Manipulation is Just Around the Corner
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The Power of Autonomous Mobile Manipulation is Just Around the Corner

By Norm Williams, Director of Robotics, Omron Automation- Americas

Norm Williams, Director of Robotics, Omron Automation- Americas

Thanks to technological progress, the feasibility of autonomous mobile manipulation in real-world applications is no longer just a pipe dream. Today, mobile robots zip across distribution and logistics centers to deliver items without colliding with humans, walls or other obstacles, and we’ll soon see the addition of collaborative robot arms to mobile robot bases to pick, transport and place items automatically.

Autonomous mobile manipulation involves integrating self-navigating robots and manipulator devices, along with vision and gripping components into systems that can perform meaningful work in dynamic environments. Although it’s a classic example of something that’s “easier said than done,” this flexibility-enhancing solution is rapidly becoming a reality.

The Time-Saving Capabilities of Autonomous Mobile Manipulation

In manufacturing, logistics, and other industries, much time is spent hunting for supplies and transporting them to the appropriate workspace. Automating these “pick and carry” tasks would dramatically enhance operational efficiency, and mobile robots are already capable of self-navigating through dynamic environments to bring materials to specified destinations.

In order to truly boost efficiency, however, these robots need to be able to locate items automatically and load them into carrier bins. This is where the most significant challenges lie, as it requires the seamless interaction of four key technologies: autonomous transport, machine vision, product gripping, and robotic manipulation.

The Growing Capabilities of Self-Navigating Robots

Today’s mobile robots have taken autonomous materials transport to a whole new level compared with the automated guided vehicles (AGVs) of previous decades. No longer needing magnetic guide tape, QR codes or any facility floor modifications whatsoever, mobile robots are now capable of self-navigating using state-of-the-art mapping software contained onboard.

To further enhance mobile robot capabilities, fleet management software coordinates groups of robots (in some cases, up to 100) to maximize the efficiency of job allocation, minimize traffic jams and manage robot energy needs. These versatile systems can plan to reduce wasted time and movement significantly.

The Flexibility of Today’s Robotic Manipulators

Automation solution providers have an ever-expanding array of manipulator integration options to choose from, including six-axis collaborative robotic arms for optimal flexibility. Collaborative robots’ design features make them ideal for operation in peopled environments, so their integration onto a mobile base won’t pose a significant safety concern.

Collaborative robotic arms use advanced sensing technologies like integrated vision cameras and force feedback to perform precise object manipulation. Vision and force feedback are critical components of robotic gripper solutions, helping to expand their flexibility to pick up objects of a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

The Ever-Increasing Versatility of Machine Vision

The flexibility of automated pick-and-carry tasks increases dramatically with the incorporation of vision technology. Today’s robust vision solutions can be integrated into a robotic system to recognize target objects and accurately direct grippers to pick them up.

Innovations in lighting, image sensors, and analytic algorithms have all contributed to machine vision’s rapidly growing capabilities. By incorporating vision and landmark features, the robot can orient itself within a 3D space and concerning multiple machine surfaces. This allows it to operate between two or more surfaces seamlessly without requiring recalibration.

Putting It All Together

By combining a self-navigating base with a flexible, vision-guided robotic arm, autonomous mobile manipulation systems are poised to become one of the most potent time-saving innovations in industrial automation today. Ultimately, the integration of these four technologies is the biggest hurdle facing design engineers.

Since the individual technologies themselves have rapidly increased in power, precision, and flexibility, we’re optimistic that the next big breakthrough is just around the corner.

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