V.Ra smartphone app for programming robots (Purdue University image/C Design Lab)

Robots for the rest of us

Researchers at Purdue University have developed a smartphone app that makes it easy to program robots for factory work or even household tasks, such as vacuuming and watering plants.

A visual and spatial programming system for designing robot tasks, the virtual robotic assistant (V.Ra) allows a user to plan a task for a robot to perform. The robot carries out the task automatically once the phone is loaded onto its docking station.

V.Ra taps into a smartphone’s video cameras to generate augmented reality scenarios that guide a robot among internet-of-things stations. While the "programmer" walks the path the robot should take to perform its tasks or draws the path on the screen, the app generates navigation maps. The app also allows the user to set options for how tasks should be performed -- for example, at a certain time or in loops.

When the smartphone is docked in a robotic device, it becomes the brain that turns the attached device into a true robot. “As long as the phone is in the docking station, it is the robot,” said Karthik Ramani, Donald W. Feddersen professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University.

The smartphone app needs to be told what kind of device it is being connected to. Does it have wheels? Two arms? “It should have a model of whatever it is put on,” Ramani said. “That can be configured and programmed into the app itself."

The smartphone app recognizes other connected devices or machines it wants the robot to interact with by reading QR codes affixed to them. The codes import an interactive 3D virtual model of the device along with its IP address and instructions on how the robot should interact with it.

When the robot navigates to an IoT device, "the local sensors take over and the phone guides it,” Ramani said. “It just does what the machine’s QR code asks it to do. A QR code might say, ‘I’m a plant. When you dock with me, perform four sprays because I know what I want.’”

He said his team’s app will alter the way robots are made and marketed. “This changes the game,” he added. “App developers are going to develop the programs for the robots. You don’t need the computer science guys anymore.”

In addition, “robots can be created very quickly,” he said. “We can create a marketplace of app developers. Pretty soon, we can be creating robots and apps like crazy.”

The team hasn’t yet created an app development program for the technology, but Ramani said that once it is developed, he expects it to revolutionize the market.

“We are changing how people make robots and think of robots,” he said. “It’s very disruptive to the existing marketplace. And that’s a challenge for us. It’s so new an idea that we can’t build on existing markets. It’s a new thing. Our lab will have to license the technology to the right kind of people to make it happen.”

Read the full paper here.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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