Make room, Bender, Rosie and R2D2! Your newest mechanical colleagues are a
few steps closer to reality, thanks to lessons learned during two robotics events
hosted by the National Institute
of Standards and Technology (NIST) at the recent IEEE International Conference
on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Anchorage, Alaska.
The events—the Virtual Manufacturing Automation Competition (VMAC) and
the Mobile Microrobotics Challenge (MMC)—were designed to prove the viability
of advanced technologies for robotic automation of manufacturing and microrobotics.
In a series of video clips, competition robots and pallet-stacking simulations show their moves. Credit: NIST
In the first of two VMAC matches, contestants used off-the-shelf computer gaming
engines to run simulations of a robot picking up boxes of various sizes and
weights from a conveyor belt and arranging them on a pallet for shipping. The
two teams in the competition—both from Georgia Tech University—showed
that their systems were capable of solving mixed palletizing challenges. To
do this, the system had to receive a previously unseen order list, create a
logical plan for stacking and arranging boxes on a pallet to fulfill that order,
and then computer simulate the process to show that the plan worked. Getting
all of the boxes onto the pallet is relatively straightforward; however, creating
a stable, dense pallet is a difficult challenge for a robot.
The second manufacturing contest “road tested” a robot’s
mobility in a one-third scale factory environment. The lone participating team,
the University of Zagreb (Croatia), demonstrated that it could successfully
deliver packages simultaneously to different locations in the mock factory by
controlling three robotic Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) at once.
In the microrobotics match-up, six teams from Canada, Europe and the United
States pitted their miniature mechanisms—whose dimensions are measured
in micrometers (millionths of a meter)—against each other in three tests:
a two-millimeter dash in which microbots sprinted across a distance equal to
the diameter of a pin head; a microassembly task inserting pegs into designated
holes; and a freestyle competition showcasing a robot’s ability to perform
a specialized activity emphasizing one or more of the following: system reliability,
level of autonomy, power management and task complexity.
In the two-millimeter dash, the microbot from Carnegie Mellon University broke
the world record held by Switzerland’s ETH Zurich (the event also was
part of earlier NIST-hosted “nanosoccer” competitions) with an average
time of 78 milliseconds. However, the achievement was short-lived. Less than
an hour later, the French team (representing two French research agencies: the
FEMTO-ST Institute and the Institut des Systèmes Intelligents et de Robotique,
or ISIR) shattered the mark with an average time of 32 milliseconds.
ETH Zurich was the champion in the microassembly event with a perfect 12 for
12 score steering pegs approximately 500 micrometers long (about the size of
a dust particle) into holes at the edge of a microchip. Runner-up was Carnegie
Mellon whose microbot successfully placed 4 of 9 pegs.
ETH Zurich’s robot also captured the freestyle event, amazing spectators
with its unprecedented ability to maneuver in three dimensions within a water
medium. In fact, in one demonstration, the Swiss device “flew” over
the edge of the microassembly field, reversed direction and pushed out the pegs
it had inserted earlier. Taking second place in the freestyle event was the
team from Carnegie Mellon that demonstrated how three microbots could be combined
into a single system and then disassembled again into separate units. Third
place in the event went to the microbot from the Stevens Institute of Technology.
NIST conducted the VMAC in cooperation with IEEE and Georgia Tech, and collaborated
on the MMC with the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society. More events of this
kind with evolving challenges are planned for the future, as robotics technologies
mature. NIST will work with university and industry partners on these events
with the goal of advancing skills that future robots—both full-size and
micro-size—will need to carry out their functions.