While the focus of the Technical College for Sports in the testing of robotic systems for neuromuscular training is primarily on physical parameters, KUKA is investigating the psychosocial aspects, such as technological acceptance, fear and confidence. Nadine Bender, Senior Analyst Social Impacts of Robotics in the research department of the KUKA Group, says: “We are changing the world of work with our products; we must therefore look into how this transformation affects people. We are aware of our social responsibility here.”
Three systems are being tested
For this reason, in the course of the research project, various devices have been developed as operable test systems in order to investigate their effects on the test persons: a robotic leg press, an automated treadmill – e.g. for patients who have suffered a stroke – and a carrying aid that provides assistance with the handling of heavy objects. The latter was developed by KUKA and consists of an autonomous mobile platform and two LBR iiwa robots
Robot as carrying aid
The system was tested at the KUKA plant in Augsburg by 15 test persons. Each day, the test persons aged between 18 and 49 answered questions and performed tasks with the HRC system. One such task was to carry a table – sometimes with another person and sometimes with the robot. “When carrying with the robot, it was clear that the human was in control and that the robot only did what it was supposed to. In this way, it was possible to avoid communication difficulties,” said one of the test persons after his task. “Altogether, communication was unambiguous. Particularly since one received clear instructions via the tablet.”
Direct interaction between robots and humans
In addition to sensors and a Roboception camera, the system is also equipped with a tablet that enables visual feedback. “The test persons have no specific robotic training. The tablet makes communication more comfortable and establishes confidence in the interaction,” says Nadine Bender from KUKA, explaining the rationale behind the technical equipment.
The system also contains maps of the surroundings, in order to be able to control the navigation, and a database of photos. Using the integrated face recognition function, the robot greets its human partner by name. All three systems, i.e. this system, the leg press and the treadmill, can sense posture and movement and the strain placed on the person, and thus adapt to the person and to the specific situation. In this way, the robots ensure that users and patients are not overloaded or endangered. One woman who took part in the test said: “After a brief familiarization phase, I quickly noticed how the robot reacted to me, what it did and what it didn’t do. For example, I realized relative quickly that it does not tend make hectic motions.”
KUKA is focusing on basic research
In the network with the Technical College for Sports in Cologne and the Ministry of Education and Research, KUKA is performing basic research. While a number of investigations into human-robot interaction already exist, KUKA’s experiments additionally cover psychosocial aspects. The intention is for these findings to be applied subsequently to other products. “Particularly in the care sector, cooperation with robots is becoming increasingly important. However, humans and intelligent machines are also increasingly working in the immediate vicinity of one another in industrial settings,” emphasizes Nadine Bender.
The research project, in which the results of the test week in Augsburg are now being evaluated, runs until 31 January 2021. Evaluation of the two other systems in Cologne is being carried out equally comprehensively in the fall. Project manager Dr. Uwe Zimmermann says: “At the moment, we are concentrating both on the psychosocial research and on the development of innovative new technologies that can also be incorporated into other products. Ultimately, we want to develop a robot system that is able to learn and to apply forces actively, thereby making it an interactive assistant for humans.”