Robots Get Ready to Take on New Challenges

February 11, 2016
John Quinn

On my niece’s first day as a nurse at the new Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco, she was confronted by a robot that asked her to “please step aside.” It had supplies to deliver, and she was in its way.

Opened just about a year ago, the $1.5 billion UCSF Medical Center—with a children’s hospital, women’s hospital and cancer hospital—boasts the world’s largest fleet of autonomous robots. The 25 Tug robots from Aethon shuttle food, linens, lab specimens and medications around the facility.

The Tug is an autonomous mobile robot made specifically for hospitals. It uses a built-in map and sensors to navigate hospital halls. It can call and ride elevators, give people the right of way, and navigate around objects. It also communicates with employees and patients as needed, with about 70 phrases.

“It’s about efficiency. It’s not a great use of someone’s time to be transporting something from A to B,” said Dan Henroid, director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Services for UCSF Medical Center, when the hospital first announced the arrival of the robots. “That’s more time that we spend in front of the patient. We want that personal touch as much as possible.”

Manufacturing plants have the same need for efficiency. And although Aethon leads the industry in hospital installations, its autonomous mobile robots have also made their way into the industrial space. These are different than the automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that have been more common in manufacturing. The Tug has its own navigation system, with no need for added infrastructure to the facility, and an omni-directional locomotion drivetrain. It can work alongside people, and can navigate around obstacles.

This kind of autonomy is beginning to take over from typical AGVs on the factory floor, which require carefully laid out paths of magnetic tape for guidance. The government has spent billions of dollars in autonomous tanks that can move around the battlefield, and Google is spending millions of dollars on autonomous cars, says Roland Menassa, leader of the Advanced Manufacturing and Software Technology Center at GE Robotics. “We’re finding some of that bleed over into manufacturing with automatic guided vehicles,” he says. “But now we’re starting to see autonomous AGVs, with no more tape on the floor. The vehicle knows the hallways and aisleways. These advances are going to allow for flexible material transfer in a plant.”

“In robotics research, perhaps the highest excitement for me is the accomplishment of authentic autonomy,” says Red Whittaker, professor of robotics and director of the Field Robotics Center at Carnegie Mellon University. The ambition for autonomous cars has been for them to understand where they are, where they’re going, and what to do. “Now autonomy is coming into the work world—reasoning about what it’s about, and thinking about what to do, how to do it, how to stay out of trouble to get the job done.”

To read the rest of this article, published in Automation World, please click here.

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