Tuesday, June 27, 2017

KUKA Innovation Award 2017

My group at the University of Southern California fielded a team in KUKA Innovation Award 2017 competition. Team members included Ariyan Kabir, Sarah Al-Hussaini, Abdullah Alsharhan, Vivek Annem, Iain Brookshaw, Qi Deng, Alec Kanyuck, Nithyananda Kumbla, Joshua Langsfeld, Rishi Malhan, Fadel Muci, Brual Shah, and Shantanu Thakar. 

After two preliminary rounds, our team was selected as one of the five finalists. Applicants for this award were expected to demonstrate an innovative robotic application using Kuka iiwa arms. Our team traveled to Hannover Messe in Germany to showcase our entry in the competition. This is one of the largest trade fair in the world. Usually, more than 250,000 visitors attend this trade fair. Distinguished visitors this year included Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany.

The focus of our application was automation of finishing processes such as grinding, sanding, and polishing. We combined planning, control, perception, learning, and augmented reality technologies to create a new robotic system for finishing operations. Our setup used two robots. The first robot held the part and the second robot manipulated the cleaning tool. We used external sensors to monitor the task progress.

Our application was significantly different from the traditional robotic applications in manufacturing. Robots in traditional manufacturing operations use pre-programmed motions to carry out the tasks. This idea only works when a robot is used is mass production application to make the same part over and over and this approach does not help in low volume production. An example of this is post-processing operations in additive manufacturing of custom parts. For metal based 3D printing, surface finishing operations are still manual and can take a very long time.

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany walked past our booth (Image Source: Kuka)
Visitors at our Booth (Image Source: USC CAM)
Our Booth at Hannover Messe (Image Source: Kuka)

Picture at Awards Ceremony (Image Source: Kuka)

Our team with the Finalist Trophy (Image Source: USC CAM)

Manual surface finishing tasks are very tedious and time consuming and contribute significantly to the total cost in manufacturing. They also pose risks to the health of the workers. Our team believed that robots should do the tedious labor and humans should perform high level decision making in surface finishing operations. This way, we can increase the productivity of human operators and improve their quality of life.

The automated finishing system needed to manage the interaction between robots, tools, and the part to be finished. Robots needed to learn and optimize parameters on-the-fly for any given object and plan their moves. A perception system was also required for detection and localization, assessing surface quality, and ensuring safety. To achieve these goals, we integrated new planning and learning algorithms with the existing technology for perception and control.

Overall we received a lot of positive feedback on our demonstration. Many companies were interested in deploying our technology. Our team returned back to USC with a resolve to mature the technology and get it ready for deployment.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Are there any positive implications of autonomous cars on jobs in taxi industry?

Many people have raised concerns about the negative impact of autonomous cars on people’s ability to make living as Uber, Lyft, or regular taxi drivers.

Clearly autonomous cars will eliminate the need for drivers and hence people’s ability to make a living as drivers-for-hire. Let us dig a little bit deeper in this area and figure out if autonomous cars will create opportunities for people in the taxi industry to make money in some other way.

The cost associated with driving a personal car is approximately 50 cents per mile. This estimate includes the cost of a modest car, gasoline, insurance, and maintenance. The labor cost of drivers makes the cost of taxis four to six times higher. Taxi fares should go down dramatically once autonomous cars become mainstream. This will make taxi services a lot more affordable. Hopefully, this will encourage people to spend more time in taxis.

Once people start spending more time in taxis in complete privacy, they might want to spend that time more productively from work and/or leisure perspectives. Here are examples of activities that they might do in autonomous taxis:
  • Doing video conferencing
  • Eating
  • Getting manicure/pedicures
  • Personal grooming
  • Watching movies
  • Shopping
  • Taking scenic detours
  • Wine tasting
  • Checking blood pressure
The above list just gives a few examples. Basically, autonomous cars will have captive customers and a wide variety of services can be offered to them by creative people. New technologies will create new service possibilities that cannot be imagined today. This should give creative people an opportunity to make money by offering services to people in autonomous taxis.

Designing such services and offering them will require a different skill set than driving. Hopefully, a proactive discussion about such service possibilities will help people get ready for the future when driving skills will be inadequate to earn a living.

I am curious to know your thoughts on what services can be offered to people spending time on autonomous taxis.