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Science

Berlin researchers unveil new robots with finger, 'emotional' sensitivity

Pi4 Robotics hopes to use this new robot to bring back manufacturing jobs to Germany, as its designed to work on inspection tasks along an assembly line, and show simple emotions visually if it detects a mistake.

Pi4 Workerbot

The Pi4 Workerbot can only show a few emotions

The Pi4 Workerbot looks like it's made to work in a factory. It's chunky and industrial with a rectangular head, two big arms and a torso that sits on top of a metal case in which all the electronics are enclosed.

It has three cameras, including one in its forehead that has face recognition and a monitor used to display smiley or sad faces, depending on what information the robot is trying to show through facial expressions.

The remaining two cameras are on each side of its head, and look like big round ears, which are also used to inspect objects.

The robot, which was developed at a Berlin startup, Pi4 Robotics, and the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology in Berlin and announced earlier this month, is designed to be used for inspection tasks on an assembly line.

Designed to inspect manufacturing flaws

The robot's demonstration task is to inspect nine small metal lions that are badges for Peugeot car steering wheels.

"Because these parts have a quite complex surface, he's looking in different positions on the part," explained Matthias Krinke, the head of the Berlin-based company behind the new robot, Pi4 Robotics, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

Robot hands

It's designed to visually inspect items or fit them together

The robot holds the shiny metal badge first up to the camera on the left, turning it in various orientations, looking for scratches or other defects.

Then the robot passes the badge to it's other hand and lifts it up for the second camera to inspect the underside. Then it places the "good" badges one by one in a grid on a tray to its right.

If the badge is defective, the robot frowns, shakes its head and places the part on the tray on its left.

But that's not its only expression. If the work is too slow, the Workerbot looks bored, or if it gets too hot, its face goes bright red.

Krinke said giving the workerbot expressions was an important design factor to integrate it into the workplace alongside people.

"You look in the face and see immediately the result of the inspection," said Krinke. "So you don't need to read a manual or to know details about the robot. It's just like a human."

High levels of dexterity

The robot's arms are big and versatile with what's called "seven degrees of freedom," which is the equivalent movement of a human arm. Usually industrial robots don't have this much flexibility.

The Pi4 Workerbot has a "gripper" or pincer at the end of each arm to pick up objects, and each wrist is fitted with what's called a force feedback sensor, which allows the robot to manipulate objects and assess how gentle it must be.

"The robot 'feels' if the position is not perfect and has the possibility with this force feedback to adjust the position," said Krinke. "And we have the possibility to grip the part with an adjusted force, therefore it would be able to pick up an egg or something like that."

The Pi4 Workerbot can also assemble two parts by taking one in each hand and turning the pieces to fit them together correctly.

Manfred Hild, the leader of the neuro-robotics research lab at Humboldt University in Berlin - who was not a part of the research - said this is no small feat.

"The advantage of this specific robot is it is able to manipulate things and have a sense of what it grabs and this is still the most difficult thing to achieve with humanoid robots," he said in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

However Patrick van der Smagt, head of Bionics and Terrestrial Applications of Robotics at the German Aerospace Center, was more critical.

He said that the robot's movements and interaction with people were quite rudimentary.

Smiling robot

Its designers say the fact that it can show facial expressions means that it will be able to integrate better with humans

"There are quite a few similar robots around with two arms. Some of them are much more dexterous," he said. "Some of them have better sensing capabilities. I wouldn't say it's the best one, but it's a pretty good one."

Price tag remains high - 200,000 euros each

Matthias Krinke said one of the main advantages of the Pi4 Workerbot is its flexibility in the factory setting, because it's been developed to work in places designed for humans.

"For a typical industrial robot it takes a couple of days of programming and setting up the robot for a new task," said Krinke. "So this robot is different, you move him with his mobile platform to the new workplace. You calibrate the robot to the new workplace and then you show him the new task."

A quick set up time is certain to appeal to any business and Krinke hopes that these robots could bring some production processes back to Germany, but Manfred Hild was more skeptical.

"It's sad, but the Chinese people are so cheap that even with the best productivity and the best robot, you will still be more expensive in Germany," he said. "And also the flexibility of the best robot today and still Pi4 is still far behind human manipulation skills."

While Krinke admitted that for very small and complex assembly tasks, a human would still be required, since it was shown to the public earlier this year, there's been a lot of interest in the Pi4 Workerbot.

For 200,000 euros ($264,000) you can buy one, or if the price tag is a little steep, or the job is a bit smaller, they're also available for rent or lease. However there's still one distinct advantage robots have over humans: they can work fast and continuously - 24 hours, seven days a week.

Author: Cinnamon Nippard
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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