With the launch of the Collaborative Robotics Laboratory, the Southwest Research Institute solidifies its position as a leader for R&D and project work for groups adopting ROS and collaborative robots for industrial work.
On August 14, 2018, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a non-profit applied research and development organization located in San Antonio, Texas, announced the launch of the Collaborative Robotics Laboratory (CRL). The laboratory features collaborative robotics systems, along with rooms for meetings and training workshops.
- Client Projects and Research – According to Southwest Research Institute representatives, the Collaborative Robotics Laboratory will be used to support both R&D projects for SwRI’s industrial clients, as well as the CRL’s own internal research.
- Safety First – The announcement also noted that much of the work at the Collaborative Robotics Laboratory will involve safe human-robot interaction, which is in keeping with one of the primary benefits of collaborative systems, namely that they operate safely when in close proximity to humans.
- More Than Marketing – Work in the Collaborative Robotics Laboratory was ongoing before the official announcement of the lab. In fact, the CRL was described in SwRI’s 2017 Annual Report, which was published long before the August 14th announcement (”This year, we established a collaborative robotics laboratory, which includes multiple robots designed to work alongside human operators.”) Also, it seems that the same space was utilized for some of SwRI’s ongoing Robot Operating System (ROS) work along with other programs. As such, the announcement of the launch of the Collaborative Robotics Laboratory can be viewed as a SwRI branding and marketing exercise. However, given SwRI’s other robotics R&D initiatives (see below), the existence of the CRL at SwRI is more rightly seen as a very positive development for the robotics sector as a whole.
- Collaborative Robots, ROS and ROS-I – Originally, the developers and end-users of industrial robotics systems could not exploit Robot Operating System (ROS), the popular open source system software for robotics, to meet their unique needs. This deficiency was addressed beginning in August, 2012 with the launch of the ROS Industrial Consortium, an international joint research initiative focused on the development of ROS-Industrial (ROS-I), a ROS platform designed to meet the unique requirements of industrial users. The ROS-Industrial Consortium is administered by Southwest Research Institute.
The goal of the ROS Industrial Consortium is the optimization and ruggedization of ROS to make it suitable for industrial class robotics applications. The ongoing development of ROS-I addresses one of the most serious shortcomings of industrial systems as they are currently configured, namely the proprietary nature of the platforms that make software reuse and systems integration difficult.
As a group, collaborative robots provide very strong support for ROS. It is not uncommon for collaborative robotics suppliers to supply ROS bridges (drivers, interfaces etc.) for their products. Many utilize ROS natively in their robotics system software.
With the launch of the Collaborative Robotics Laboratory, the circle is complete. SwRi solidifies its position as a leader for R&D and project work for groups adopting ROS and collaborative robots for industrial work.
- Collaborative, but Still Complex – Despite all their accomplishments, the adoption of traditional industrial robots by many industry sectors has been limited by their high costs, complex programming and inability to work in close association with humans. As a result, the market for collaborative robots, human scale systems that are easy to set up and program, can support multiple types of automation, and which can work safely in close proximity to human workers, is very active at this time.
As a whole, collaborative systems are easier to set-up and program than traditional industrial robots (although new programming modalities are simplifying programming for many types of systems). ‘Easier’, however, is a relative term. For many companies, and for many applications, the learning curve for collaborative systems can still be daunting. This holds even for larger companies with deep pockets and substantial in-house robotics expertise. Research and project work at SwRI’s Collaborative Robotics Laboratory will act to reduce the level of uncertainty for industrial groups using collaborative robots, as well as other technologies based on ROS’s open source development and distribution model.
- Monitor at a Minimum – Southwest Research Institute has a long history of (founded 1947), a great deal of experience in, and a well-deserved reputation for, applied research and development services for industrial firms. SwRI client work often includes the development of systems with advanced capabilities, exhibiting high levels of robustness, and have very specific run time requirements. Many SwRI client projects are “commercial ready” when completed.
At a minimum, those companies or robotics systems integrators developing new application classes enabled by collaborative robots (and by extension ROS) will be well served by monitoring the ongoing work at SwRI’s Collaborative Robotics Laboratory. If need be, Southwest Research Institute is also well positioned to lead collaborative robotics R&D projects for industrial customers (typically large companies).