Nowadays, over two-thirds of European workers in manufacturing are employed in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This is a considerable percentage that UE must consider in its decision concerning funding for Research and Development. One of the most significant aim of SMEs is to offer a valid answer to changing production needs that are developing more and more quickly in our contemporary society, and robotics represents in this sense one of the major challenges.
Bringing cognitive robotics from vision to reality in a key segment of EU-manufacturing is the reason why SMEROBOTICS, the European Robotics Initiative for Strengthening the Competitiveness of SMEs in Manufacturing, has born. The objective of the project is to propose a work system which covers all phases of the robot life-cycle and through which humans could operate together with robots into the field of manufacture. More in detail the project aims to transfer the concept of cognitive robotics from vision to reality. This is based on a three-year initiative, which will end on 31 December 2015, for developing suitable robots for SMEs that are agile enough to allow companies to modify their productive processes without the intervention of specialists. There is also an Italian group involved in SMEROBOTICS: Comau spa, a company that works in the field of industrial applications and automation technology, based in Turin.
Various automation technologies will be presented in 2014 during a fair called AUTOMATICA: for instance, a lightweight robot for small productions, welding robots controlled by sensors able to learn from a human welder, a robotic cell for general tasks of economic manipulation, as well as innovative software.
SMEROBOTICS is funded by the European FP7 from January 2012 until the end of 2015. The total cost of the project is estimated EUR 18,502,531 and UE has given funding for EUR 12,149,967. Also an Italian enterprise is involved, but he consortium is composed by German, Sweden and Danish enterprises. But SMEROBOTICS is just a little part of the Italian contribution in the field of robotics, starting from universities. And, above all, in Italy robotics is not synonymous only with industrial automation. In this sense the two major research institutes that work in the robotic sector are Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna located in Pisa and Instituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) based in Genova.
“The cornerstone of our mission,” explains Paolo Dario, Professor of Biomedical Robotics at the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna, “is BioRobotics, understood as a combination of science and engineering. In the past, robotics was seen as only industrial sector, or as science fiction. To us today it's interesting to approach these two fields to understand for example how a fish swims, or bird flight.” The BioRobotic dream at the Scuola Sant'Anna results in four main areas: construction of tools for surgery, prosthetics, rehabilitation and personal care. "Our robotics does not necessarily fall in the field of humanoid robotics. Humanoids are only one of the branches of which we are concerned here. For instance, are humanoids those robots designed to give assistance to the elderly?" The BioRobotics Institute, is the result of a merge between ARTS Lab, CRIM Lab and EZ Lab, and it works in collaboration with Instituto Italiano di Tecnologia (MicroBioRobotics Center) and with other leading universities in Japan and Korea.
Humanoids are one of the most important research areas of IIT. In particular, there are different robotics departments working on an innovative and multidisciplinary approach to humanoid design and control. Examples are the humanoid iCub and CoMan. The iCub is an innovative platform to support research concerning embodied cognition, it has the shape of a 4-year child and is able to interact with the environment by recognizing and grasping objects, using tools, hearing, having the sense of touch and walking. It is developed by IIT and was co-funded by the EU Commission under the 6th Programme. 25 copies of the iCub robot are currently in use in other research institutes in Italy, in Europe, USA and Japan. It is designed to be a robot companion in the future society and in industrial domains too. iCub and Coman, the other humanoid robot produced at IIT, are involved in EU project Walkman, which aims to enhance the capabilities of existing humanoid robots, thus permitting them to operate in emergency situations, while assisting or replacing humans in civil damaged sites including buildings, such as factories, offices and houses. In such scenarios, the Walk-man robot will demonstrate human type locomotion, balance and manipulation capabilities. The robot will have the ability to walk and balance in unstructured workspaces, ability to walk over rough terrain, in and through cluttered spaces, and among the crowd or crawling over a debris pile.
But not just humanoids. IIT also focuses on technologies into industrial field, for instance microturbines as an energy-harvesting device – Microturbine is actually an IIT start-up company. The target of the research program is to study novel miniaturized power supply systems, with applications to robotics, but also to other fields, including autonomous robotics, mobile systems, and remotely located or geographically distributed infrastructures. They offer an interesting challenge both from scientific and technical viewpoint, for micro-fluid dynamics, high-speed rotor dynamics, mechatronic systems integration and micro manufacturing.