Industrial Embedded Computing Technology for Smart Robots

Modules for Cooperative Robotics

The Service Robotics Research Center of Ulm University of Applied Sciences is developing a modular software framework to make it easier to program robots. The goal is to provide software components that can be used universally, for instance to swap robotic gripping arms from different manufacturers as required to generate new robotics solutions via plug and play. The team at Ulm University relies on congatec to address the need for highly scalable and standardized embedded computing hardware.

By
Zeljko Loncaric

Marketing Engineer, congatec

Prof. Dr. Christian Schlegel
Service Robotics Research Group’ Ulm University of Applied Sciences

Today’s modern robots are highly complex constructions with numerous subsystems. They use manipulators with various axis and drive units, at the ends of which specific tools, gripper systems or measuring instruments are installed. Additional sensor systems are needed for controlling the kinematics as well as for object and position recognition, for example in pick-and-place applications. With the advent of autonomous and collaborative robots—sharing the same workspace with humans—many more tasks and building blocks are added. Examples include localizing and navigating mobile robots in industrial settings and safe man-machine interaction. In Industry 4.0 environments, an M2M interface to the surrounding machines and systems is also required. The goal is mutual task coordination. All of these different robot types—from autonomous to cooperative to collaborative—require enormously powerful software components and high-performance embedded systems.

Collaborative robotics needs hardware and software components that can be modularly assembled to suit their task. There should be minimal to no programming effort—it should be enough for the modules to be parameterized. (Source: Zentilia |
Dreamstime.com (ID 18864362)

High market demand for smart robots

Market demand for smart robots will grow rapidly in the coming years. For example, the market for autonomous robot systems is expected to grow at a CAGR of 23.7% until 2023, while the new market segment of collaborative robots is due to grow twice as much at an average 59% per annum. OEMs are under immense pressure to develop and to bring such new systems to market maturity as quickly as possible in order to participate in this high market growth. But the software development is a particularly great challenge for OEMs, system integrators and users: More subsystems have to be integrated into the already complex autonomous robotics solutions if they are to become collaborative and/or cooperative.

The Software Challenge

Today, the software for robots is frequently still implemented as a closed system— usually with individually tailored x86 or Arm hardware including ASICs or FPGAs. Often, the software is even individually tailored for each robot making reuse difficult. All tasks such as manipulator control, navigation, machine vision, task coordination and HMI are programmed as a unit. It is therefore currently nearly impossible to exchange software components even for the most frequently required functions or to use them on another hardware platform. This means that for every new design, the robotics software has to be re-implemented. This is both error-prone and time-consuming, and can significantly delay the rollout of much-needed innovative solutions—not to mention the hassle this causes operators who have to program each robot initially for its specific task.

Modular and Reusable

The development team of the Service Robotics Research Center of Ulm University of Applied Sciences under Professor Schlegel is now replacing this closed system approach, which perpetually creates new software projects for the system integrator and user, with a modular software approach that divides the complex overall robot system into several independent functional units, and then in a second step specifies the interaction between the individual units via fully and transparently defined interfaces. This concept, which is called SmartSoft, is now being expanded and widely marketed at the European level (EU H2020 project “RobMoSys – Composable Models and Software for Robotic Systems”) and national level (BMWi PAiCE project “SeRoNet – a platform for the joint development of service robot solutions”) in cooperation with partners from industry and research.

Essentially, this approach aims to make it possible to assemble robotic systems from fully developed and tested modular software building blocks. This allows software developers to focus on individual function modules without having to consider the internals of the other components. More importantly, it makes it possible to combine functions such as the cooperative or collaborative elements as well as the logic for specific manipulators and a lot more in a modular way – even across manufacturers. Ultimately, this also reduces the effort required for system integrators and end users to make customer-specific adaptations, and will significantly drive the widespread adoption of robotics.

So, let’s assume you have a manipulator from company A, combined with a chassis from manufacturer B, and a stereoscopic machine vision system from manufacturer C. The dedicated control software, for instance for use in intralogistics applications, is then easily assembled from the ready-made software components thanks to the high level of abstraction and requires only minor adjustments. This application is by no means a dream of the future, but already being tested in the real world. For example, the Ulm team has already implemented the service robotics duo Larry and Robotino, which, in a pharmaceutical intralogistics application for Transpharm Logistik GmbH, assembles drug packages from individual trays completely autonomously and takes them to a specified delivery point. In a slightly different configuration, the two robots have autonomously taken coffee orders and delivered them to the customer’s table. Thanks to the ready-made, freely combinable software components, the redesign took only a few hours. The video to see the two robots in action is posted here:

Containers with Clearly-Defined Interfaces

To enable virtually any assembly of elements, the team from the Service Robotics Research Center of Ulm University of Applied Sciences has developed a software model with individual service-oriented components and a model-driven open-source software toolchain for the Eclipse development environment. This environment provides component developers with tools that they can use to build their own code for each functional unit and then secure those algorithms by automatically generated component containers. These containers communicate with other containers based on uniform communication interfaces. In addition, the wrapping also protects the component developer’s IP. The team has already developed several such functional modules and makes them available for use in own projects. These include navigation modules, machine vision, HMI, manipulator control and task coordination, to name just a few examples. As a unifying communication interface, SmartSoft also relies on OPC UA. This allows manufacturers to focus on specific containers and build their core competencies here. Customers benefit from a much more flexible offer.

The SmartMDSD Toolchain allows component developers to develop software components for individual functional units that can be combined as required and reused in new robot designs. The underlying hardware should therefore be flexibly scalable.

Generic Embedded Hardware Instead of
Proprietary Designs

For the logic hardware, the Ulm team uses x86 technology to decouple the software development as far as possible from any specific hardware. With the appropriate glue logic, such an approach is particularly easy to implement with x86 technology also as far as the later migration of such systems is concerned.

Embedded x86 hardware is also particularly apt in this context because of the high standardization and comprehensive documentation. The form factors are standardized not only as regards dimensions but also in terms of the application programming interface. This facilitates replacement of hardware – provided the boards comply with the eAPI specification of the PICMG or SGET’s UIC standard. Under those circumstances, it is even possible to vary freely between different form factors such as motherboards and Computer-on-Modules depending on the requirements of the application without having to significantly change the way of accessing the hardware during the migration. One supplier who attaches great importance to this standardization and its documentation as well as the simplest possible hardware integration is congatec, whose products the Service Robotics Research Center of Ulm University of Applied Sciences uses in its projects.

“Next to basic requirements such as maximum computing power, energy efficiency and reliability, we also attach great importance to high standardization and the capability to migrate universally,” explains Matthias Lutz from Ulm University of Applied Sciences. “Every additional abstraction level in the software requires additional computing performance, so we’re currently working with powerful dual-core technology. A standardized approach to board components and GPIOs to control the robotics modules also gives us the abstraction required for independence at the embedded computing level.”

The autonomous picking robot Larry with congatec conga-IC175 Mini-ITX carrier board: High computing power, little heat waste, small form factor and highest reliability are the key factors here.

The choice ultimately fell on the fully industrial Mini-ITX carrier board conga-IC175. That’s because the standardized Mini-ITX form factor offers many advantages for developing the prototypes of the innovative software components into real systems: It already integrates all interfaces on a standardized board, and congatec lets you realize the power supply via standard ATX power supplies, industrial 12 V feed-in, or SMART batteries, which is essential for mobile robots such as Robotino and Larry. Extensions can also be implemented quickly and efficiently via PCIe expansion cards. The board is highly energy efficient and uses robust embedded components, so it can be operated without expensive cooling.

Evolution of embedded computing hardware from congatec for smart robots: Depending on the design concept and lot sizes in the series, OEMs can choose either embedded Mini-ITX motherboards (1), standardized carrier boards (here Mini-ITX) with Computer-on-Modules (2), customized carrier boards with Computer-on-Modules (3), or full custom designs (4), which congatec can implement comparatively quickly and easily on the basis of module upgrades.

Future commercial robot designs from Ulm will be implemented on Computer-on-Modules. But regardless of whether it’s a Mini-ITX motherboard, module with standard Mini-ITX carrier, module and individual carrier, or full-custom design: It is the Total cost of Ownership (TCO) that ultimately matters to OEMs, and when using modular software this is also determined by the software support of the hardware. To make it even easier to integrate more functionalities in the future, comprehensive support for real-time hypervisor technology can bring added benefits. This will give customers the option to integrate additional functionalities, such as their own IoT gateway, without having to use a dedicated hardware platform, which saves hardware costs.

“We see clear benefits in such modular approaches as they mirror the modular approach of our software. In this respect, it is very interesting to see that with the acquisition of Real-Time Systems congatec now has virtually direct access to the hypervisor technology of these robotics and automation experts,” concludes Lutz.

Coupled with the Technical Solution Center (TSC), in which congatec consolidates all its OEM services, this results in a complete package for customers such as the Service Robotics Research Center of Ulm University of Applied Sciences or Transpharm Logistik GmbH.

SIDEBAR:

Intralogistics Application at Transpharm Logistik GmbH
Picking tasks are performed by a heterogeneous robot fleet in an intralogistics application at congatec’s industrial partner Transpharm Logistik GmbH. The autonomous picking robot Larry is equipped with a UR5 manipulator module and uses a Segway chassis. The transport robot Robotino has a conveyor belt instead of a manipulator to take the picking robot to any point. Orders are received directly from the warehouse management system via WLAN. The fleet management system selects two picking robots, which then execute the order. The application is based on results from the BMBF project “LogiRob – Multi-Robot Transport System in a Shared Human-Machine Workspace” and “ZAFH Intralogistics – Collaborative Systems to Increase Intralogistics Flexibility”
(Baden-Württemberg and EU ERDF 2014-2020).

About the Authors
Zeljko Loncaric is Marketing Engineer, congatec. Prior to joining congatec mid-2010, he held various positions with international companies in product management, marketing and sales marketing in Germany and Australia. Zeljko holds an MBA in business management and a degree in Media Technology from the University of Deggendorf.

Prof. Dr. Christian Schlegel is in the ,Service Robotics Research Group’ Ulm University of Applied Sciences. Christian Schlegel (45) has been a professor at the Faculty of Computer Science at Ulm University of Applied Sciences since 2004. Schlegel, who received the Science Prize of the City of Ulm in 2010, is the coordinator of the “Service Robotics” joint project.

THIS ARTICLE IS SPONSORED CONTENT BROUGHT TO YOU BY:
congatec is a leading supplier of industrial computer modules using the standard form factors COM Express, Qseven and SMARC as well as single board computers and EDM services.                  www.congatec.com

This article appeared in the September 350 issue of Circuit Cellar
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Gumstix Inks Global Distribution Deal with Mouser

Mouser Electronics has entered into a distribution agreement with Gumstix.. As part of the agreement, Mouser Electronics becomes an authorized distributor of Gumstix’s comprehensive portfolio of SBCs and embedded boards for the industrial, Internet of Things (IoT), smart home, medical, military and automotive markets.

The Gumustix Overo COMs are available from Mouser Electronics in three varieties to provide engineers with design flexibility: the entry-level Overo EarthSTORM COM, graphics-focused Overo IceSTORM COM, and Overo IronSTORM-Y COM (shown) with Bluetooth 4.1 low energy technology and 802.11b/g/n wireless communications with Access Point mode.

To enable engineers to test LoRa protocol solutions based on an Overo COM, the Overo Conduit LoRa Gateway includes a Microchip LAN9221 controller for 10/100 Base-T Ethernet capabilities, plus headers to connect to a RisingHF RHF0M301 module and an Overo COM.

For engineers using a BeagleBone Black for prototyping, Gumstix offers two capes. The BBB Astro Cape is a capacitive-touchscreen-ready expansion board with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies. The BBB Rover Cape is a “robot-ready” expansion board with 9-axis inertial module, GPS capabilities, wireless connectivity, and pulse-width modulators (PWM) for servo control.

To support Raspberry Pi boards and the Raspberry Pi Compute Module, engineers can take advantage of expansion boards from Gumstix. The Pi Compute FastFlash provides a compact, cost-effective solution that quickly flashes the embedded memory of the Raspberry Pi Compute Module. The Pi Newgate breakout board enables engineers to connect to all of the module’s external signals via 0.1-inch-pitch pins to monitor digital, analog, and differential signals. The Pi Compute Dev Board is a complete multimedia expansion board for portable devices and IoT boards with camera and HDMI capabilities.

Mouser is also stocking a series of GPS and camera peripherals for Gumstix devices. The Pre-GO PPP (Precise Point Positioning), with either surface mounted antennae or SMA antenna connectors, provides a high level of global positioning accuracy. The Tiny Caspa parallel camera sensor board delivers reliable video feeds directly to the Overo family of COMs and to many expansion boards and SBCs in the Gumstix line.

Additionally, Mouser offers the Gumstix Pepper and more advanced Poblano single board computers. Running on Android or Yocto Project, the Pepper 43C and Pepper 43R boards feature an Arm Cortex-A8 processor, 512 MB of DDR3, 802.11 b/g/n connectivity with AP mode, and Bluetooth 4.1 and Bluetooth low energy. The boards are supported by the Pepper 43 Handheld Development Kits, which come equipped with a 4.3-inch LCD touchscreen, audio in/out, and a Texas Instruments WiLink 8 combo-connectivity module.

The Poblano 43C features a powerful TI Sitara AM438 processor, 3D graphics processor, multi-touch capabilities, Wi-Fi, camera connector, and embedded NAND flash storage. The board is supported by the Poblano 43C Handheld Development Kit, which contains a Poblano 43C board, 4.3-inch LCD capacitive touch display, USB cable, 5V power adapter, U.FL antenna, and SD card pre-loaded with Yocto Linux.

Gumstix | www.gumstix.com

Mouser Electronics | www.mouser.com/gumstix.