ErgoCub, the robot that wants to help workers in warehouses

Posted on 05/07/2023 by scr33tch in Humanoids

A project of the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) and the Italian National Institute for Insurance against Accidents at Work (INAIL).

ergoCub, born from a research center and an insurance company

The Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) is a public research center that is dedicated to the development of science and technology. Among its areas of expertise, robotics occupies an important place. The IIT is known for having created iCub, a humanoid robot capable of learning and interacting with its environment.

The National Institute for Insurance against Accidents at Work (INAIL) is a public Italian institute that aims to protect workers from occupational risks. It offers medical, economic and social benefits to victims of work accidents or occupational diseases.

These two institutions have joined forces to launch the ergoCub project, which aims to design and build a new collaborative humanoid robot, inspired by the technology of iCub, that meets the requirements of acceptability, usability, safety and ergonomics for workers.

A robot adapted to logistic environments

The ergoCub project starts from the observation that digitalization, the internet of things and robotic elements introduced in production processes with the advent of industry 4.0 have changed the working conditions in many sectors, especially logistics.

Warehouses are places where workers have to perform repetitive, tiring and sometimes dangerous tasks, such as loading, unloading, sorting or transporting goods. These activities can lead to musculoskeletal disorders, accidents or stress.

The ergoCub robot is designed to work in partnership with human operators in these environments. Its shape, size, power and mass distribution make it suitable for handling heavy or bulky objects while respecting the space and safety of people.

A robot equipped with artificial intelligence

The ergoCub robot is not a simple mechanical tool, but a true intelligent partner. An artificial intelligence gives it the ability to learn from its experience and adapt to unforeseen situations.

ergoCub is able to recognize objects, people and gestures thanks to visual and tactile sensors. It can also communicate with human operators by voice or facial expressions. It can thus receive instructions, ask for help or express its emotions.

The robot is also able to plan its actions according to the objectives to be achieved and the environmental constraints. It can cooperate with other robots or with humans to perform complex or coordinated tasks.

A robot respectful of workers’ well-being

The ergoCub robot is not only a way to improve productivity and efficiency in warehouses, but also a factor of well-being for workers. Indeed, it aims to reduce the psychophysical risk associated with strenuous or dangerous activities.

The robot can relieve human operators of the most tiring or repetitive tasks, allowing them to focus on more skilled or creative activities. It can also provide them with moral or emotional support, creating a relationship of trust and empathy.

The ergoCub robot can contribute to the prevention of work accidents, by respecting safety standards and alerting humans in case of critical situations. It can also intervene in case of emergency, by providing first aid or calling for help.

A robot under development

The ergoCub project was launched in 2020. INAIL funds the project with 5 million euros. It involves a multidisciplinary team of researchers, engineers, developers and technicians from IIT and INAIL.

The ergoCub project plans to produce two prototypes of humanoid robots. They will be tested in real or simulated environments. The tests will aim to evaluate the technical, functional and ergonomic performance of the robots. They will also assess their social and ethical acceptability by workers. A virtual environment based on the Gazebo software can simulate the robot, reproducing the real conditions of warehouses.

The ergoCub project also plans to disseminate the results obtained through scientific publications, conferences, demonstrations and communication activities. The goal is to raise public awareness and stakeholder awareness of the opportunities and challenges that collaborative robotics represents for the world of work.

A robot based on iCub technology

The ergoCub robot is based on iCub technology, the humanoid robot developed by IIT since 2004. iCub is a 104 cm tall and 22 kg weight robot, which has 53 degrees of freedom and a childlike appearance. It is equipped with visual, auditory, tactile and proprioceptive sensors, which allow it to perceive its environment and its own body. It also has a cognitive system based on the paradigm of sensorimotor development. This allows it to learn by experience and interaction.

The robot retains some features of iCub, such as the modular structure, kinematic redundancy, variable compliance and distributed control. It differs however by its larger size (150 cm), lighter weight (15 kg), more ergonomic shape and ability to handle heavier objects (up to 10 kg). It is equipped with new sensors and actuators, such as stereo cameras, force/torque sensors at the feet or pneumatic grippers.

A robot that asks questions

The ergoCub robot is a concrete example of how robotics can be used for the prevention and protection of workers. It also illustrates the progress made in the field of artificial intelligence. This allows machines to learn, adapt and communicate with humans.

But the ergoCub robot also raises important questions about the social, economic and ethical impact of introducing robots into work environments. What will be the consequences on employment, training, health, safety, liability, trust, cooperation or competition between humans and machines? How to ensure respect for the rights, values and needs of workers in the face of market demands?

It is out of the question to ignore or postpone these questions. These questions cannot be ignored or postponed. They must be addressed now, with a participatory and multidimensional approach. This involves all stakeholders: researchers, businesses, unions, institutions, associations, media and citizens. Because it is together that we must build the future of work in the age of robotics.

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