Until now, consumers have only known household robots as silent vacuum cleaners that go around in tireless circles across the living room floor. The idea of delegating more complex tasks to these devices or even entering into an interaction with them still sounds like science fiction to most people. But with "Care-O-bot 4", Mojin Robotics GmbH, a spin-off of the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA), is now launching an intelligent robot that demonstrates the quantum leap in this field of research. In February 2018, the spin-off was awarded the Fraunhofer Founder Prize. The device is to be used, amongst other things, in the retail trade and in medical care.
A flexible helper
The by now fourth generation of intelligent helpers is the result of decades of research. Fraunhofer IPA has been working on its Care-O-bot since the 1990s. The first prototype from 1998 was already equipped with a mobile base platform and a rotating and swivelling touch screen. It was able to perform simple transport tasks and interact intuitively with people. The robot was first used as a trade fair and exhibition guide, for example, in the Berlin Museum of Communication.
"In times of radical technological changes, many companies are emerging. That was already the case 200 years ago," explains Professor Thomas Bauernhansl, Director of the Fraunhofer IPA. "From my point of view, we are currently experiencing a second period of rapid industrial expansion. The success of the German economy depends on how well we shape it. Mojin Robotics is an excellent example of how long-term technology development can bring success to the market.
The researchers have adopted this assessment. Due to its modularity, the Care-O-bot 4 can be assembled for various applications without great development effort. A series of modules can be added to the robot using plug and play: A torso, a hip joint, head and arms as well as a sensor ring. High-quality sensors and patented ball joints also provide it with a high degree of agility. Based on this modular system, Mojin Robotics will now decouple series products, for example the Robo Guide for retailers.
Wide range of applications
In January 2015, the Care-O-bot 4 was completed and promptly distinguished with the Red Dot Design Award. Unlike its predecessors, it can now be used as a commercial service robot. Possible fields of work are kitchens, hospitals and hotels. There it takes over the preparation of the food and delivers it afterwards. Industry will also remain an area of application. Here the robot supports loading and unloading as well as order picking. Its basic module can also be used as a transport platform.
Another field of application is retail. In the Saturn stores in Hamburg, Ingolstadt and Berlin, Care-O-bot 4 already welcomes customers as "Paul" the sales assistant. It knows the complete range and can navigate consumers to the desired product. Compared to its flesh-and-blood colleagues, it also has no lack of humour or social manners. According to the ideas of its developers, Paul should be "courteous, friendly and likeable like a gentleman", i.e. far less distant than his predecessors. Paul's display can even show several different moods. Giving the Care-O-bot 4 a human face will become the decisive criterion for its acceptance by customers. Especially in hospitals and care facilities, where it is not only about cognitive tasks, but about an emotional relationship with the client. Therefore, great importance was also attached to voice interaction and secure navigation in a retail environment for the pilot application at MediaMarktSaturn.
Since the completion of the prototype in 2015, the development focus has been on commercial applications. "We see great potential especially in the service sector," explains Dr. Alex von Frankenberg, Managing Director of High-Tech Gründerfonds. "The shortage of skilled workers in this area will become increasingly acute in the coming years. We can counteract this development with mobile service robots. This is why we would like to open up new applications with the Mojin Robotics GmbH team and thus revolutionise service robotics".