Meet SARA, the almost-autonomous nursing robot

A Dutch startup BrightCape has developed a robot called SARA. SARA’s purpose is to support the nursing staff in taking care of the elderly. SARA can, for example, help the elderly doing their exercises, tell them stories or warn the nurses if something goes wrong.

To read as well: Innovation project becomes start-up: Robot Sara reduces the workload of healthcare employees

While robots are not a new phenomenon in healthcare, SARA is to a large extent autonomous. With SARA Home, the nursing staff can add profiles of individual inhabitants of nursing homes. Currently, SARA is tested as a pilot in two Dutch nursing homes for the elderly. With the feedback they receive from both the nurses and clients SARA gets improved over time. As of right now, the main focus in on helping the elderly. But the aim is to make the robot also available for hospitals.

Start-up of the Week: Farewell to filthy seafarers?

”Your sneak preview of the future” is the slogan of Innovation Origins, and that’s just what we will highlight with our Start-up of the Week column. Over the past few days, five start-ups of the day have been featured and on Saturday we will choose the week’s winner.

Innovation Origins presents a Start-up of the Day each weekday

We shall consider various issues such as sustainability, developmental phase, practical application, simplicity, originality and to what extent they are in line with the Sustainable Development Goals of UNESCO. They will all pass by here and at the end of the week, the Start-Up of the Week will be announced.

CityStep – E-scooters set to soar in The Netherlands

The four students from Breda at CityStep have proven that holidays can sometimes also be a time to reflect and be inspired. Sometimes you don’t even have to come up with something completely new for a good business plan. Instead, you can simply shift an existing idea from one place to another. The Brabanders were so enthusiastic about their e-scooter tour during a city trip to Valencia that they immediately thought: ‘We have to got to bring this to The Netherlands too’. But that was easier said than done, as ever since the Stint tragedy in 2018, electric bikes in the Netherlands have suffered from a bad image.

The National Transport Authority (Rijksdienst voor het Wegverkeer) has significantly tightened up the rules due to safety reasons, but this did not prevent CityStep from going ahead with their plans. During a networking get-together on a rooftop in Tilburg, they came into contact with a scooter manufacturer that meets these strict regulations. The first rental scooters in Tilburg are now available for hire. The transformation towards an e-scooter empire which encompasses the Netherlands should take place over the coming years.

Wabenwerk – Done with non-recyclable plastic

The invention of plastic in the twentieth century meant a real revolution in the packaging sector and in food preservation. Yet plastic is both a curse and a blessing. Mountains of disposable plastic pollute the oceans and the stuff is so tough that it takes nature hundreds of years to break it down. How wonderful would it be if you could have the versatility and advantages without the drawbacks? More and more governments are working on reducing dnon-recyclable plastic. There is even a complete ban in Costa Rica. However, an alternative is needed. The founders of Wabenwerk in Germany were inspired by Mother Nature herself.

Bees in their natural environment are also constantly working on sealing their larvae, pollen and honey in their hives. They do this with honeycombs that they make out of beeswax. Wabenwerk developed a cling foil made of this organic material so that plastic foil is no longer necessary. Bees play a very important role in the pollination of crops in nature. They fly from flower to flower and gather more pollen on their feet. Whenever things go bad for these insects, you can also see this reflected in the environment. Do the diligent six-legged honey makers still play an essential role when it comes to the livability of our planet? That may very well be the case!

SARA – More mechanical hands on hand in homes for the elderly?

The workload within the elderly care sector is set to increase at an unprecedented rate over the coming years. In about ten years’ time, a relatively large group of elderly baby boomers will need a great deal of care. At the same time, there will be significant shortages in this sector. Nevertheless, there is a trend that more or less coincides with that of baby boomers who are in need of care. Namely, the rise of service robots. The Eindhoven-based company Bright Cape has designed SARA, which is a Social & Autonomous Robotic Health Assistant, SARA already carries out work in two Dutch senior citizens’ centers on the work floor. Ironically, this robot offers a modicum of humanity in times when every minute of care is supposed to be spent efficiently.

SARA is able to chat with chronically ill clients, play a number of interactive games with them and even has a program with made-to-measure physical exercises. This allows her human colleagues to spend more time on healthcare tasks. However, it is a bit odd that a robot like SARA is supposed to make sure that the human element comes back to the care for our senior citizens. Wouldn’t it be more logical to employ a robot nurse for the medical tasks and thereby give people more time for a cup of coffee or a chat about the weather? All the same, SARA is more than welcome! Clients and care staff are happy with this innovative nurse on wheels. She is a keeper for them in any event.

Heat Power – Flexible turbines for peak demand

The first two decades of the 21st century were characterized by flexibility. And if it’s up to Henk Ouwerkerk, this should also be the case for consumers of large quantities of energy. This Dutch start-up designed a system that they have called Rankine Compression Gas Turbine. A steam turbine that can be switched on when there is a need for more power. Why is this so convenient? Large consumers often buy electricity in bulk. So when they unexpectedly need more than that, they tend to buy extra. However, this costs them a lot of money and puts an extra burden on the electricity grid.

By using the RCG system from Heat Power during times of peak demand, you can avoid that this ‘peak demand’ becomes the new standard. You can’t use this superfluous amount of electricity for any other purpose, so it’s a real shame that it’s generated for no reason. The steam turbines can be activated in the event of a power outage but remain inactive for the rest of the time. Ideal for manufacturing companies that have to deal with fluctuating and unpredictable demand.

We4Sea – Farewell to filthy seafarers?

The fact that flying and driving contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases is now well known. We all have to live more sustainably on a massive scale and every polluter has to be involved in this. One sector which is somewhat less commonly recognized as far as this is concerned, is the shipping industry. Container ships are essential for the transport of goods around the world, but they have a very nasty disadvantage. They use heavy crude oil and this is about the most environmentally damaging fuel out there. In fact, one container ship produces as much carbon dioxide emissions as no fewer than 50 million cars. So there is a lot of ground that can be gained here, as they pointed out by the We4Sea start-up based in TU Delft.

What does this international team do? They use data models to advise the maritime sector on how to reduce their emissions by a substantial percentage. Measurement equipment usually has to be installed for comparable initiatives, which is easier said than done for large ships. We4Sea uses a unique technology that utilizes satellite data, ship position data, weather data and technical data from the ship for creating a computer simulation. Real-time advice is generated on the basis of this data. This enables the crew to drastically reduce their emissions. These energy-saving measures are not only sustainable, but also make a considerable difference in terms of costs for companies. Because, of course, no one wants to emit more than is strictly necessary just for the sake of it.

Much still has to be done despite the fact that in recent decades considerable steps within the shipping industry have already been taken towards a more sustainable future. The sector has set itself strict targets. By 2050, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 50%. While such targets are naturally a welcome first step, they still have to be met. This is also easier said than done. For example, the Dutch government has not met its 2020 targets. Nor do  they expect to meet those of 2030 either. Perhaps the shipping industry will succeed in 2050 with We4Sea’s help! Their single-minded, innovative approach to a sector that is not known for its flexibility and sustainability has in any case convinced us to honor We4Sea with the title of Start-up of the Week!

Start-up of the day: vineyards operated by robots

The age when vineyards are operated by robots has arrived. As you read this, a robot could well be helping to cultivate grapes that might be used in your next glass of vino.

This is what the French start-up VitiBot is busy with. Vitibot provides winegrowers with robotics and AI so that they are able to radically change their work methods while still maintaining their competitive edge. Its robot, Bakus, helps to reduce the use of chemicals which pollute the air, water, and land and that are suspected of causing serious diseases. All this can be done without the need to resort to manual labor.

Bakus is an electric, autonomous and intelligent robot. It eases the winegrower’s workload, reduces their ecological footprint and improves the quality of the final product for wine drinkers.

VitiBot’s founder comes from vintner’s stock himself, hence his passion for this field. The start-up is aiming to combine modern-day technology with the traditional art of the winegrower. Basically, it wants to provide all the advantages that are available nowadays without compromising on the quality of the product. And do this while also taking care of the environment.

A proof of concept eventuated after studying the market which established that vintners were ready to take on robotics. Interest was bolstered by regulatory developments concerning chemical products. An initial series of 6 Bakus robots was subsequently completed in 2019; a €3.5 million fundraising campaign financed this. And they are currently in the process of raising a further €10 million in order to fund series production. They are planning to enter the market for French and European vineyards in particular over the next 2 years.

Innovation Origins had a brief chat about the start-up with Aurore Lecrocq, part of the communications team at Vitibot.

®VitiBot

How does the technology work? Did you invent the technology?

Vitibot has designed a product ththey have named BAKUS, which is a multipurpose robot. This robot is 100% electric and 100% autonomous. Consequently, BAKUS is able to operate independently and can do that night and day. And yes, VitiBot did design its own technologies and has already filed several patents for the robot and its tools.

What are the uses it can have?

Winegrowers are able to use Bakus to do the soil work, i.e., mechanical weeding and threshing – instead of using chemical strippers. Spraying is also done in a very controlled and limited fashion.

What was the motivation behind the creation of Vitibot?

Well, Cedric Bache, VITIBOT’s founder’s father, is a winegrower in Champagne, where the start-up was set up. So, the passion was there from the beginning. Yet we also want to encourage winegrowers to meet environmental, societal and safety challenges and keep their operating costs competitive. That’s how VITIBOT was born.

What makes VitiBot so different from other similar startups?

First of all, the robot was designed from scratch by our engineering team. They integrated the latest technologies that can be adapted to all kinds of vineyards. Also, our robot can navigate its environment autonomously with its sensors, day or night. BAKUS was designed to be as efficient as possible by using only electric actuators.

As a result, BAKUS only requires about €1 worth of electricity, whereas conventional machines use around 10 liters of diesel per hour. The tools take advantage of the robotic platform so as to provide a more efficient and consistent work output. This in turn drastically reduces the need for agrochemicals. Associated services can be accessed via an online platform. Plus it compiles all the data necessary to report on the health of the vines and make it easier to keep a check on how the vines are being looked after.

Can the robot be used for something else other than wine?

No yet. But, in a few years, we will adapt our technologies for other markets. We have already been approached to work in other areas.

Was there ever a moment when you thought of giving up?

No. Not for me.

What has been the most gratifying moment?

Yes, our victory last year at the robotics competition organized by the Champagne Committee was a major highlight. That’s because it signified that our technology’s value has been recognized by the professionals.

®VitiBot

What can we expect in the future?

Right now VitiBot is still busy with a prototype. After the initial €3.5 million funding, we are aiming for a €10 million investment by the end of 2019 in order to fund the scaling up of our activities in France and across Europe. We are aiming to become the leader in vineyard robotics in France, Europe and all over the world.

What is your ultimate goal?

To revolutionize winemaking methods so as to make them safer and more environmentally friendly all around the world.

Aquatic robot mimics motion of tuna to break speed record

A TU Delft graduate student from Soft Robotics, Indu1strial Design Engineering, has created the fastest swimming flexible robotic fish. Mimicking the movement of real fish, the prototype is able to go as fast as 0.85 m/s. Which is at least 27% faster than what the previous record holder was able to accomplish.

It all started when Sander van der Berg was looking for a graduation project that would make a significant contribution to robotics. But also one that could be carried out within the brief time span that he had for it.

He found that opportunity in the topic of oscillating fin propulsion (robotic fish). It is a very promising field that is still in its early stages of research, which meant that there was plenty of potential for an innovative design within a relatively short time frame.

After reading a few papers, I soon saw that there was room for improvement. Which I eventually managed to do using a single direct current (DC)  propulsion system. This system is the first system that uses a single DC motor which can generate a higher number of the precise swinging movements that a robotic fish needs in order to move faster. This got its top speed up to 0.85 m/s,” said van Der Berg to Innovation Origins. 

The previous record was held by Jun Zhong and his associates. His bionic robotic fish swam at a speed of 0.67m/s back in 2017.

®Sander van den Berg

The flexible robot was able to surpass this record speed by using a fluent S-shaped motion to swim, similar to how a fish flaps its fins and tail. The part that is is actively used for this is pulled from side to side by a single DC motor. Another section bends according to the resistance of the surrounding water.

Moreover, unlike conventional propulsion rotor blades, the whole system is watertight.

Building the underwater robot required printing rigid 3D parts, a sheet of plastic which was used for the compliant section and needed to be able to bend, plus a soft silicon skin which was used to make the hydrodynamic shape. In addition, computer modelling was used to program the precise movements of the fish.

According to the graduate student, this robot could achieve even faster speeds.

“The goal was speed and so a higher speed was accomplished. The system isn’t totally optimized as yet, so an even faster speed might still be achieved, probably with the same prototype,” said van der Berg.

“It is important to note how important it is that our fish is able to swim freely and that it is compliant. There are robotic fish out there that swim faster when they were attached to a rig, for instance. They can’t turn their heads, that’s why they can swim faster and better than if they were actually swimming around freely. The compliant design allows for a more fluent motion (more efficient) and uses a single motor (also more efficient, less costly and less complex). And what’s really of paramount importance – it doesn’t harm the environment it swims in. If it hits something, it will just bend,” he added.

Van der Berg has now left the project as he has since graduated. However, there is currently a new graduate student hired for the project and a new paper is on the way.

Moves Like a Fish

The way in which tuna swim was used foremost in the creation of the robot.

Thunniform swimming is well documented as one of, or even the most, efficient forms of swimming. It uses vortexes to create a peak thrust at the back instead of a simple reactionary force. This is called a reverse Kármán vortex street.” 

®Sander van den Berg

What also appealed in this research, was the fact that thunniform swimming activates only a small portion of the tail. This in turn allows a large portion of the body to be able to carry a load. “This means that practical applications are possible. The gearbox system we designed is also quite wide, which turned out to be similar in width to that of a tuna’s torso. All in all, it was not designed like a tuna, but its capacity to carry a load, its efficiency and speed made it look and act like a tuna.”  

What is its contribution?

When discussing exactly what this prototype has to offer, van der Berg said that “there are many short term benefits. But the ultimate goal is to design a more efficient propulsion system as an alternative for most underwater rotor blade propulsion systems.” 

He does see potential in the route that this work is taking.

“Even before this can be achieved at a reasonable cost, there are already plenty of benefits to consider. I have already mentioned the reduced risk of harm to the environment. For instance, conventional rotor blades make a lot of noise and suck in debris. Sea life can easily be harmed by these fast and sharp rotating blades. Oscillation is much quieter, doesn’t harm anything it comes into contact with and doesn’t suck up any debris.” 
The way in which it respects wildlife makes it an ideal vehicle for research in this area.
As well as all of that, he believes that the benefits of oscillation systems can be used for underwater drones or submarines as it can increase efficiency in deep dives. This is mainly due to the fact that the flexible fin oscillation system is completely watertight.
®Sander van den Berg
Yet what this machine offers is not only limited to the underwater world. It just needs some extra research.
The prediction model for how well the compliant section works and the system’s design for higher speed could perhaps also be applied to airborne drones (using an oscillation system). More uses that I haven’t yet thought of might be discovered by someone else.” 
Consequently, the researcher states that it has major potential for efficiency in general. Even on water surfaces, fin oscillation can be 100% more efficient. This means that the possible areas of application are huge.

Employees less upset at being replaced by robots than by other people

Generally speaking, most people find the idea of workers being replaced by robots or software worse than if the jobs are taken over by other workers. But when their own jobs are at stake, people would rather prefer to be replaced by robots than by another employee. That is the conclusion of a study by the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

Over the coming decades, millions of jobs will be threatened by robotics and artificial intelligence. Despite intensive academic debate on these developments, there has been little study on how workers react to being replaced through technology.

To find out, business researchers at TUM and Erasmus University Rotterdam conducted 11 scenarios studies and surveys with over 2,000 persons from several countries in Europe and North America. Their findings have now been published in the renowned journal Nature Human Behaviour.

The threat to the feeling of self-worth

The study shows: In principle, most people view it more favourably when workers are replaced by other people than by robots or intelligent software. This preference reverses, however, when it refers to people’s own jobs. When that is the case, the majority of workers find it less upsetting to see their own jobs go to robots than to other employees. In the long term, however, the same people see machines as more threatening to their future role in the workforce. These effects can also be observed among people who have recently become unemployed.

The researchers were able to identify the causes behind these seemingly paradoxical results, too: People tend to compare themselves less with machines than with other people. Consequently, being replaced by a robot or a piece of software poses less of a threat to their feeling of self-worth. This reduced self-threat could even be observed when participants assumed that they were being replaced by other employees who relied on technological abilities such as artificial intelligence in their work.

New skills

“Even when unemployment results from the introduction of new technologies, people still judge it in a social context,” says Christoph Fuchs, a professor of the TUM School of Management, one of the authors of the study. “It is important to understand these psychological effects when trying to manage the massive changes in the working world to minimize disruptions in society.”

For example, the insights could help to design better programs for the unemployed. “For people who have lost their job to a robot, boosting their self-esteem will be less of a priority,” says Fuchs. “In that case, it is more important to teach them new skills that will reduce their concerns about losing out to robots in the long term.” The study could also serve as a starting point for further research on other economic topics, says Fuchs.

Top 10 Emerging Technologies (2): social robots

Dalai Lama

World Economic Forum (WEF) asked a group of international technology experts to identify this year’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies. After soliciting nominations from additional experts around the globe, the group evaluated dozens of proposals according to a number of criteria. Do the suggested technologies have the potential to provide major benefits to societies and economies? Could they alter established ways of doing things? Are they likely to make significant inroads in the next several years? “Technologies that are emerging today will soon be shaping the world tomorrow and well into the future – with impacts to economies and to society at large”, said Mariette DiChristina, Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American, and chair of the Emerging Technologies Steering Committee. In our constant lookout for the origins of innovation, IO will present WEF’s top-10 emerging technologies day-by-day. Today: social robots.

After part 10 has been published, the whole series can be found here

Innovation Origins writes about robots on a regular basis. Robots to perform rescue operations, to play football, to clean solar panels, to organise the logistics, to assist in surgery, to create fashion, to serve drinks and whatnot. We are also critical about hypes, but most of all, we are looking for opportunities. This is especially true when robots are devised to be social: that’s when the Hubot enters our world. They are designed to engage with people and elicit an emotional connection. According to WEF, the field of social robots seems to have reached a tipping point, “with bots having greater interactive capabilities and performing more useful tasks than ever before”.

Like most robots, social robots use artificial intelligence (AI) to decide how to act on information received through cameras and other sensors. Advances in AI have enabled designers to translate psychological and neuroscientific insights into algorithms that allow robots to recognize voices, faces and emotions, interpret speech and gestures, respond appropriately, make eye contact, speak conversationally, and adapt to people’s needs by learning from feedback, rewards and criticisms.

Pepper

In consequence, social robots are filling an ever-expanding variety of roles, WEF concludes. The examples are abundant. A more than a meter tall humanoid called Pepper (from SoftBank Robotics), for instance, recognizes faces and basic human emotions and engages in conversations via a touch screen in its “chest”. About 15,000 Peppers worldwide perform services such as hotel check-ins, airport customer service, shopping assistance and fast-food checkout. Temi (from Temi USA) and Loomo (Segway Robotics) are the next generations of personal assistants, providing a new level of functionality. Loomo, for instance, is not only a companion but also can transform on command into a scooter for transport.

TU Eindhoven’s social robot HERO won the 2019 world title by performing ‘challenges’ like “Find Josja in the living room” and “Take out the garbage”. Such tasks may seem simple, but there are still many challenges for robots. Not only does it need to make a digital map of the space, but the robot also needs to understand the task well, be able to recognize objects such as benches and cans, and finally, he needs to devise optimal strategies for different tasks.

Social robots have particular appeal for assisting the world’s growing elderly population. The PARO Therapeutic Robot (developed by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology), which looks like a cuddly baby seal, is meant to stimulate and reduce stress for those with Alzheimer’s disease and other patients in care facilities. It responds to its name by moving its head and it cries for petting. Mabu (Catalia Health) engages patients, particularly the elderly, as a wellness aide, reminding them to take walks and medication and to call family members. Social robots are also gaining traction with consumers as toys. Early attempts to incorporate social behaviour in toys, such as Hasbro’s Baby Alive and Sony’s AIBO robotic dog, had limited success. But both are resurging and the most recent version of AIBO has a sophisticated voice and gesture recognition can be taught tricks and develops new behaviours based on previous interactions.

According to WEF, worldwide sales of consumer robots reached an estimated $5.6 billion in 2018 and the market is expected to grow to $19 billion by the end of 2025, with more than 65 million robots sold a year. “This trend may seem surprising given that multiple well-funded consumer robot companies, such as Jibo and Anki, have failed. But a wave of robots is lining up to take the place of defunct robots.”

(Most of this article is drawn from the 2019 Top 10 Emerging Technologies report)

Some hypes and missed opportunities in robotics

Prof. Herman Bruyninckx (KU Leuven) presented a critical view on the robotics industry during the seminar in High Tech Campus Eindhoven. Bruyninckx delivered a talk on the hypes and missed opportunities in robotics pointing out the key issues that robotics should tackle nowadays.

Herman Bruyninckx has a background in mathematics, physics, computer science and “Philips” mechatronics. He has worked as a roboticist since 1988. Now he is a professor of KU Leuven and TU/e. Herman Bruyninckx’ research focus is robotics as the science of the integration of the systems-of-systems.  

Does more computing power lead to better robot systems?

Herman Bruyninckx believes that what robots lack nowadays is the awareness of the users’ intentions and the ability to use abstraction. “50 years after the “first robot” Shakey you can still you go to a robotics conference and understand everything there – because the context and the mathematics are exactly the same. Intention and abstraction of the robots are still very underdeveloped. We need higher-order logic to make the robot aware of why it should be doing something but there is no formal language to represent that. We cannot even formalize what we humans know about the intentional context,” says Bruyninckx.

Context is everything

“There are different levels of perception, and we change them all the time automatically,” says Bruyninckx. “If I’m walking along the stage and I’m not paying much attention to the edge, I’m not going to drop off here. Even if I do, it’s not so high. But I would move completely different if I hold a baby in my hands. Baby will have an impact on all of my control settings, on all of my perception settings. So the context of the task changes everything. But the robots haven’t even started using that kind of context-dependency.”

Abstraction

“We don’t memorize how many people we saw in the cafeteria – lots of background noise is erased. All that we use in our education is abstraction. Humans use abstractions so much and so long that they don’t understand anymore how difficult it is. And we want the robots to learn how to use abstraction by showing them sensors’ data. Then why don’t we teach our kids maths by showing them 1000 million equations?”

Deep learning, according to Bruyninckx is just a new buzz word. “It has nothing to do with deep and nothing to do with learning,” argues Bruyninckx. “It’s all about data reduction. Robots need hard human thinking, not ICT support.”

Robots and environment

“Now robots are kept away from touching the environment, but it shouldn’t be so,” says Bruyninckx. “If I need to take something from the table without looking, I will take it by touching. Touch is really important for most of the tasks.” Bruyninckx and his research group conducted tests on active sensing with people: a person was blindfolded, unable to hear and was wearing very thick clothes. It’s the best possible approximation of a human to a robot.

Open source

ROS (Robot Operating System) is the open source that has conquered the world. In prof. Bruyninckx’s view, ROS has its bad practices. “If it is open-source it doesn’t mean that it automatically gets improved. The first thing that people do when they need to use this open source is forking and fragmenting it.” According to Bruyninckx, ROS has become a monopoly and misses meritocratic credibility to prevent fragmentation.

Where is the state-of-the-art in robotics?

According to prof. Bruyninckx, making an academic career in robotics has become too easy. “Too many old simplistic ideas are coming back again and again. It’s popular to have simplistic solutions but they won’t work,” says the KU Leuven professor.

Another problem of robotics in the academic system is the lack of standardization. “Where are you going to look if you want to know the state-of-the-art in robotics? I don’t know where to find it. There are hundreds of thousands of papers claiming that they are state-of-the-art. We did an extremely bad job in robotics as an academic system. In many cases, Wikipedia can be by far your best source about the state-of-the-art in robotics is.”

Access to knowledge problem

Bruyninckx points out that his work as a university professor is paid 100% by tax money. “When I am hired by a university, that means that your kids only have access to my knowledge in that university because universities don’t work together. I think, people who pay taxes so well should have a lot more value for their money.”

As Bruyninckx says, big IT companies are privatizing decades of public investment because of the lack of open standard regulations. “Robotics is scary. They put things behind the login and all the public knowledge becomes private,” says KU Leuven professor.

Technical conclusions

“Robots need a lot more formalization and standardization to allow the robots to cope with intention, abstraction and context.”

“Progress is value-added, robot-centric applications will profit more from advances in mechatronics and materials than ICT and AI: our robots must touch the environment, including people and plants.”

Bruyninckx believes that materials should be important for the robotics. “Look at yourself, how great these materials are! There is so little friction in our body. Robotics needs new materials. No more computers, networks, sensors. There is more than enough information and computing power.”

“I was in Silicon Valley for a long time and I can say it’s better here, in the Netherlands and in Flanders. We have more potential with robotics then Silicon Valley because we have not only software but the machines.”

 

Dutch Retailer Albert Heijn to start autonomous food delivery service at High Tech Campus Eindhoven

Albert Heijn bezorgrobot

Albert Heijn will be introducing an autonomous delivery robot at the High Tech Campus Eindhoven this summer. Initially, it will be a trial of a few weeks. Albert Heijn has no plans yet for a roll-out outside the campus grounds.

The news was announced on Tuesday during the Digital Food Conference, which Emerce organized together with Foodlog.

Employees and visitors at the campus will be able to place their orders via an app at Albert Heijn’s AH to go store which is located there. AH employees place the order in the robot which then drives to the location where the customer is located. “This way you can work undisturbed while lunch is arranged for you,” says a spokesman for the supermarket group. The robot, developed by German/Swiss TeleRetail, uses a virtual map to find its way and is equipped with sensors to make sure it doesn’t run into anything.

The fact that the test takes place on the High Tech Campus has everything to do with the closed character of the (private) terrain. Such a test would not yet be possible on public roads.

The robot is called Aito; Swiss Post also uses it. A larger type is in development for the Japanese market, said CEO Torsten Scholl to Emerce. According to Scholl, the current prototype costs between €50,000 and €100,000 depending on the configuration, but the price could eventually drop to €10,000 to €20,0000, it is expected.

Tailor-made robots for everyone

Auch Roboter wie diese könnten mit Hilfe von Q-Rock konstruiert werden: DFKI-Robotersystem SherpaTT im Feldtest in der marsähnlichen Wüste von Utah. Foto: DFKI

BREMEN, December 15, 2018 – Robots have long been an important part of industrial production. They are also fulfilling more and more functions in logistics, especially in the internal logistics of an industrial company. In the past, they could only be found stationary, but now there are more and more mobile and partly autonomous robots that transport individual components or search complex production plants for errors. However, this also poses new challenges to the development of robots. The German Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) is now investigating in a research project how users without expert knowledge can develop robot systems tailored to their requirements in the future.

Artificial intelligence helps to construct robots

Q-Rock is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research with 3.17 million euros. The aim is to develop a solution with which even small and medium-sized companies can develop robots for their own purposes. “Q-Rock is an important step towards so-called ‘integrated AI solutions’. This approach will also enable people who are not AI or robotics experts to develop and deploy systems tailored to their own needs,” says Professor Frank Kirchner, who heads the DFKI Robotics Innovation Center.

An example of modern specialized systems: This robot system from Grenzebach is used at large airports to load baggage. Photo: TheGrenzebachGroup via Wikimedia Commons.

Q-Rock uses artificial intelligence methods such as structural reasoning and machine learning. It also uses data from a previous project, which created a database for the development of robots. In addition to software modules, this database also contains hardware and behaviour models. The individual components are modularized and can, therefore, be combined within certain limits.

In the end, users should be able to access such a database and configure robots from the offered elements according to their specifications. In Q-Rock, the robot itself will be able to understand its capabilities based on its hardware structure.

Robots that understand themselves

Of course, the first thing the researchers have to do is develop special programs that can do this. And they must first describe the capabilities of subcomponents, i.e. a sensor or a joint, before they can derive the capabilities of an overall system. To put it simply, they need digital models of the individual robot components from which the entire machine is created. The components are not only components such as gripper arms, a motor or sensors but also modular software modules for controlling robot behaviour.

Robots are also used in research, here in the National Genome Project in the USA. These robots move sample containers from one workstation to the next. Photo: Maggie Bartlett, National Human Genome Research Institute via Wikimedia Commons.

Q-Rock should also lead to robots that are capable of understanding their skills based on the hardware they are made of. The robot software would first determine the capabilities of individual components on the basis of a general description and then derive the capabilities of the entire system from this. This would teach the robot what to do. Conversely, these abilities can then also be stored as software modules, which are then also contained in the database.

A user can now combine hardware and software components to create a complete robot system. Special prior knowledge is not required. It is sufficient if he enters his requirements into the database. This way, artificial intelligence can help to build highly specialized robot systems with little effort in the future. These would normally be industrial robots, but the principles could also be applied to the construction of space probes or autonomous exploration robots.

Getting Brabant robot-ready requires awareness, training

RobotAcademie

There is an urgent need to prepare work-floor employees for working alongside a new generation of smart robots, says Josje Verbeeten, managing director and co-owner of Robot Academy, the training agency which was set up with the support of robot employment agency Smart Robotics and the province of Noord-Brabant. Ensuring that the province is robot-ready is a gradual process, though, and Verbeeten says the question remains whether employers are willing to allocate training budget to workers who in many cases are on temporary contracts.

See also: How to make the Eindhoven-Brainport ecosystem future-proof

In setting up Robot Academy 18 months ago, she commissioned research amongst 300 companies in the province to establish how far they are in the adoption of robots in the production process, and to hear what their related needs are. One of the outcomes from this research was evidence that companies need the training to ensure that the transition involved in the innovation process is a healthy one, with sustainably positive outcomes.

Being mindful about adding robots

Josje Verbeeten
Josje Verbeeten

“I visited different factories and met stackers and packers from different countries and backgrounds who were unaware of their jobs being threatened. At the same time, it was clear that management saw robots like another tool being introduced, without considering the impact on their most important asset, the human employee. All of these innovative changes have consequences for the workforce, and it is vital that HR consider what the changes will mean for the atmosphere on the work-floor and for organisational processes,” Verbeeten says

She is full of optimism about the future of work with collaborative robots – cobots – and describes how the project captivated her from the start. “Eighteen months ago it was very new; I had an instant fascination and jumped into it. I believe in the power of robots – to improve working conditions, to take over increasingly complex work”.

Getting the best out of innovation

Preparing employees who may be resistant, uncertain or fearful about the future of working with robots will be important in speeding up the innovation which is enabled through the technology. “Robots can be a solution where it is difficult to find the right skills or to replace dull and dirty jobs. Physically challenging work does not fit a time when there is an increase in the need for sustainable work. Besides, robots make it possible to include those with a physical disability”.

See also: What if we would work together with robots?

Robot Academy focuses its training on management as well as technical employees: For management and HR, it is about creating awareness and providing inspiration for company policy. For production employees, including operators, cleaners and administrative colleagues, it is about creating awareness, building experience and stimulating thinking about extending knowledge, Verbeeten explains.

“I visited different factories and met stackers and packers from different countries and backgrounds who were unaware of their jobs being threatened. At the same time, it was clear that management saw robots like another tool being introduced.”

RobotAcademie
Robot Academie training

Human rights for robots?

Who is responsible when an autonomous car drives into a group of cyclists? No one has the answer to this yet. Is the manufacturer to blame? The team that wrote the software? The owner of the car? Or maybe the automatic system of the car itself? Who will decide?

In a court case against a robot, Robot Love tries to start a discussion about these questions. According to the organisation of the case, it is important that we as a society start thinking about the rights of robots. Especially now that more and more forms of artificial intelligence are appearing that make the intervention of people superfluous. How far should we go in granting rights to robots?

The court case is part of the Robot Love event, which takes place from 15 September to 2 December, in the old Campina Factory in Eindhoven. More on the event here.

During the trial that takes place on 4 October, a brothel keeper takes a sex robot to court. The robot threatens to place personal information of a violent visitor on social media, the brothel keeper fears reputation damage and via the judge tries to prevent the robot from placing the story on the internet.

Hub Dohmen, a lawyer specializing in IT and Intellectual Property cases, defends the robot during the trial. Dohmen is trained as a technician and therefore ‘speaks’ two languages. He sees that the legal system is struggling with the rapid progress of various AI systems. According to him, it is impossible to predict where this technique will go, but that does not mean that we should ignore the subject. How does he do that, defending a robot? Dohmen: “For this, we need to apply an artifice in the process. We assume that the robot has a separate legal subjectivity.”

Dohmen explains that there are currently two legal subjects: natural persons (people), and legal persons, which includes a BV for example. In the robot process, a third form is added: that of robots. Or as Dohmen calls it: “the artificial entity. In this legal form a robot has rights and duties, just like people or companies have, but not necessarily the same. Robots should be able to order their own maintenance, for example, or can be held liable if they cause damage. If a person breaks something, he has to pay, the decision-making power of a BV lies with the director, but the BV has to pay. So there is always one person to be appointed who is ‘behind it’.  But what about robots?

Dohmen: “Even with a BV you can’t say that a director decides everything. Sellers can sell things, HR takes on staff. They don’t have to ask the director for permission; that would create an unworkable situation. See what’s going on within ING now: a top executive steps down under great pressure from public opinion. But you could also look at the layer below him. Did they know what was going on? Can you identify them as people who were responsible? With artificial intelligence or robots, the software is written by a person. But because of all the data that the system collects, the program changes, that does not always involve a person. So the difference between a BV and a robot is not as big as it seems.”

Dohmen admits that robots are not (yet) able to make independent decisions. But he emphasizes that the robot process is “not an air cycling business”. By this, he refers to a proposal of the Legal Committee of the EU to give robots some form of rights. “There is still a lot of disagreement about this proposal. There is a lot of fear of robots, although not unjustifiably so. After all, we do not know where it is going. It is not inconceivable that unskilled workers, but also judges or lawyers, will be replaced by robots in the future. Opponents sketch a science-fiction story based on emotion. We have to stay away from this, we have to look at the facts. At the same time, this fear should be an incentive to be well informed in all areas: technical, philosophical and legal. By already thinking about different possibilities, we can avoid some surprises.”

Dohmen does not think that robot rights will become a reality very soon: “It is not a black and white issue where you can say on the one hand you have the human being who has all the rights and duties and on the other hand on the scale you have robots. It does not work that way, it is more complicated than that. With this court case, we want to take this debate to a higher level.”

The court case will be led by Mr Willem Korthals Altes. He worked as a lawyer, was a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam and has been active as a judge for over 22 years. For cases like this, there is no legislation yet, so Korthals Altes has the difficult task of making it.

Microsure ready for next steps with Microsurgery Robot

Microsurgical Robot prototype from TU/e

Microsure, a joint spin-off by Eindhoven University of Technology and Maastricht UMC+, this week becomes fully independent. The company’s development of a surgical robot able to perform operations with the utmost precision is almost complete. The robot, which is always controlled by a surgeon, is suited to performing reconstructive surgery that human hands are hardly capable of doing. The device, the first of its kind, should be ready for use in operating theaters within two years.

Read moreMicrosure ready for next steps with Microsurgery Robot