RF Microlocation Boosts Speed and Safety in
Robot Work Cell
Microlocation uses the radio frequency to precisely position fixed and mobile robots in work cells down to the millimeter,
allowing them to work faster and safer around humans.
by John Hitch
The way we deal with industrial robots is a bit silly when you think about it. We limit their strength and speed with
force-torque sensors and preset protocols
so they can work around humans, or stick
them behind fences so they can move like
the powerful machines they are.
Of course, keeping workers safe isn’t silly—
which these measures are in place for—but not
fnding a way to optimally leverage machines at
the same time certainly is. Instead of slowing
down robots so that when they do no damage
when they make contact with humans, why not
improve the machines’ awareness of where
their human counterpart is?
“Imagine a robot collaborating with a person
using exquisitely precise knowledge of what
the person is doing,” teases David Mindell, a
professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
who has spun out a company called Humatics
(a portmanteau of human and robotics) to
solve this problem.
Using a radio frequency (RF) innovation
called microlocation, robots, along with au-
tonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and drones,
can sense where other objects are down to
the centimeter and even millimeter level, if
they are ftted with a low-power smart tracker.
The step-change in precision is expected to
enhance how robots “locate, navigate, and col-
laborate,” effectively bridging gaps in spatial
awareness between work cells, cobots, and
human workers. If the robot in a pick-and-
place application always know where its feshy
coworker is, it could move faster without fear
of accidental contact.
“This enables a greater awareness and
collision avoidance,” Mindell says. “With the
Humatics Spatial Intelligence Platform, we
hope to ramp that up to more common usage.”
If successful, Humatics’ solution offers
immediate and signifcant productivity gains
over GPS, which can’t be used reliably indoors
and gets within 6 to 10 meters. Machine visioning can be used indoors and does offer
breakthrough awareness, but it costs more
and its video data takes longer to process. And
everyone knows how restrictive the magnetic
tape boundaries for AGVs are.
“Microlocation provides improvements in
fexibility, makes it much easier to rearrange
production lines, reduce infrastructure, and
converts big heavy fences into software,”
Mindell explains. “Precision always equals
performance, whether that means an increase
in safety or throughput.”
The company’s course towards fulflling
these promises appears to be on an equally
precise trajectory. The company’s lead investor
is Bill Ford, and a recent acquisition of 5D
Robotics allowed Humatics to absorb Time
Domain, a company that has already com-
mercialized centimeter-range microlocation
with a range of hundreds of meters.
“There are only two ways to do this pre-
cise radio rang-
ing,” Mindell says.
“We’re doing it one
way; Time Domain
was doing it the
other. Now we own
both of them.”
like a card player
with pocket Aces,
which he really
does have, in a
way. So his conf-
dent excitement is
to be expected.
low power aspects should excite any engineer
having trouble reconciling how heavy and
energy-expensive some machine visioning
systems can be. Meanwhile, the throughput
improvements should entice production managers. But there’s a big difference between
amazing theoretical tech and practical deployment in factories.
The technology is new and still being beta
tested, but Mindell, who also chairs the MIT
Task Force on the Work of the Future and is
the Dibner Professor of the History of Engi-
neering and Manufacturing, can rattle off
dozens of real-life applications in the factory
and later, smart cities, which he says the
company is “pursuing aggressively.”
An active pilot project with an undisclosed
manufacturer is currently proving the Spatial
Intelligence Platform is more than just hype. In
it, a mobile cart carries parts to a production
line, where a robot picks them off.
“In order for them to merge, the cart needs
to approach a work cell and must be registered
into the shared coordinate frame there,” Min-
dell says. The microlocation trackers act as
tags which the platform converts to answer
the most pressing questions the robots have at
the moment: “Where am I? Where am I going?
How do I relate to surroundings?”
“With mobile platforms going up against
fxed assets, you need precision navigation to
do that,” Mindell says. “The more precise you
are, the faster you can go.”
And right now it looks to be the fastest choice.
“Machine visioning systems may spend 6
to 9 seconds on alignment,” says Mindell. “Our
system does that instantaneously.”
Saving a few seconds here or there adds
up to more parts being delivered, less battery
use of the vehicles per trip, and frees up a
bevy of other processes that might be waiting
for machines to meet up.
The Time Domain IP also gives Humatics access to the ultra-wideband, so these machines’
chatter won’t interfere with, or get scrambled,
by the dozens of other communications and
IT devices riding RF channels.
Right now the trackers are about as big as
a credit card or hockey puck, Mindell says, but
“they are rapidly shrinking in size.”
The size reduction will take the tech to much
greater heights, as it will bring microlocation
to delivery drones, which are now limited by
power consumption and weight.
“We see ourselves opening up the whole
3-dimensional space for the factory and the
city,” Mindell says. “There’s a lot of underuti-
lized space and this adds a high degree of
robustness for drones.”
The centimeter range sensors, PulsON OEM
modules, are available now and the millime-
ter-range sensors should be available in 2019.
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Example of smart factory foor setting where Humatics’ Spatial Intelligence Platform
can locate and navigate objects with centimeter-scale precision using its RF sensors
and analytics software.
Microlocation technology allows robots to accuately know where
certain objects (such as humans) are, down to the millimeter,.
SPATIAL INTELLIGENCE PLATFORM