With this project, we aimed to create a new way of interacting with the robot that is more intuitive and more versatile. Hopefully, with added functionality, we can help WashU gain more value from the FANUC robot (through research and other projects like ours) and help other students explore the quickly evolving robotics industry.
Robots of Today
The robotics industry is rapidly changing how businesses are run. Pricewaterhouse Coopers stated that almost 40% of current United States jobs are at risk for automation by 2030. Although this is a dismal statistic for working Americans, there is some hope that arises from the potential for new jobs, as this automation era will be reliant on the efficient collaboration between humans and robots.
Hand Guiding and Force Sensors
In industry, one way to make robots more collaborative is to introduce hand guiding functionality. In a hand guiding application, a robot is not given complete control of its motion – so a human operator can move the robot to desired positions manually with the use of a force sensor.
A force sensor sends the robot information about external forces so that it can react accordingly. Force sensors can be placed directly on the robot, which is what is most often seen in industry applications of hand guiding. Force sensors can also be placed externally, or farther away from the robot, so it can be operated with a joystick-like controller from afar. This is what we did in our project.
Our FANUC Robot
In the Controls Lab in Green Hall sits a FANUC LR Mate 200iC Robot – a small servo-driven industrial and commercial robot.
This piece of machinery is a valuable asset to the systems engineering department, and was an investment that likely cost thousands of dollars. But our research into this equipment has shown us that the FANUC robot is horribly underutilized. There are only a handful of past or current research projects that involve the robot and only two WashU faculty members know how to safely operate the machine. So…
Why aren’t students and faculty using this really cool, really expensive, and really relevant toy?
Based on our own class experience we concluded that one of the big issues is that the FANUC robot is essentially uncharted territory. In other words, with the current infrastructure, there is no intuitive way to interact with the robot.
Controlling the Robot Before
At the start of this project, the only currently established means of communication between the user and the robot was through (1) FANUC’s teach pendant or (2) a MATLAB script created in a past project that allows a user to input desired robot position coordinates into the script, upload the script to the robot, and hope the robot behaves as expected.
With the teach pendant, there is a lot of knowledge required to understand the full functionality and what each of the buttons/button combinations does. Plus, teach pendant functionality is limited in general. It’s not designed to be the primary interface for robot programming and is more a tool for understanding.
The MATLAB script was essentially a guess and check operation that was slow, riddled with bugs, and didn’t represent how a robot would be used in a real-world application. It also required background knowledge of how the program worked and the steps needed to get it to work properly.