Designing Configurable Cobots to Preserve Workers Health in Workplaces

CONCERT, acronym for CONfigurable CollaborativE Robot Technologies, is an innovative project that has the goal of developing a novel concept of configurable robot platforms, which can be explored in application domains with unstructured, variable and evolving workspace settings and tasks.

The new cobots target to deliver important assistance in several activities thanks to their strength and versatility. The main feature will be that these robots will be composed of modules, which may be integrated to match the requirements of different tasks.

The project will last 3 years, and it is coordinated by IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (Italian Institute of Tecnology). The project consortium includes 5 important European partners from Italy, Poland, Austria and Germany. CONCERT has received a 3 million euro funding from the European Union within the Horizon 2020 program.

The project's vision proposes the development of a new paradigm of high power/strength, adaptable, collaborative robots, which leverages on configurable robot hardware with adaptive physical capabilities towards safer, more versatile and sustainable robots.

The introduction of CONCERT technologies could have a clear positive impact for safety in various working tasks assisting to avoid fatigue and injuries.

In fact, these configurable cobots will help in solving different tasks that require substantial and repetitive physical effort from the workers and can potentially represent a danger for their health, like in building sites where there are risky activities that require the application of high level of forces, both in construction and demolition.

Nikos Tsagarakis, coordinator of the project, is the Principal Investigator of the "Humanoid & Human Centered Mechatronics" (HHCM) lab at the IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (Italian Institute of Technology) in Genoa, the home laboratory where the anthropomorphic robot WALK-MAN and the CENTAURO hybrid wheeled-legged quadrupedal manipulation platform were developed within the related EU research projects in the past.

The CONCERT project was born as a follow up research action and will leverage on the expertise gained and technologies developed in the HHCM research line to realize the envisioned novel robotics technologies for the construction sector.

Tsagarakis' group will work alongside with Arash Ajoudani's group, also involved in this project. Ajoudani is the head of the Human-Robot Interfaces and Physical Interaction laboratory at the IIT in Genoa; Ajoudani's group is a reference point for the development of human robot interaction technologies for collaborative robots. Dr. Ajoudani is the head of another European project, Sophia, and holds an ERC grant.

Thanks to the new project CONCERT, researchers will develop different types of powerful collaborative robots, able to operate alongside human workers, demonstrating strength greater than that of a human and autonomy and collaboration intelligence while interacting with the human operators through advanced interaction interfaces and tools.

The CONCERT robots will be able to acquire information from the environment and execute high-level operator commands, for example, in the case of teleoperation activities, while also adapting to the environment independently.

This will be important, for example, in the case of teleoperation of hazardous construction tasks where workers will be able to command the CONCERT robot from safe distance to perform these operations, such as the application of chemical substances.

Researchers aim to realize single robotic modules responding to specific tasks, so that they can be arranged and integrated differently according to the task they have to perform.

For example, an extension module may help workers in realizing tasks that are dangerous from being lifted from the ground, such as using ladders or scaffolds. Dedicated robot configurations with appropriate end-effectors may help in transportation of heavy loads and in assembling operations of structures.

The robots will be equipped with online safety verification methods, permitting the safe interaction with human operators. They will be controlled by advanced human-robot collaboration tools, with the aim of providing intelligent, adaptive and easy to use collaboration interfaces to human operators and workers.

Moreover, CONCERT robots will operate on batteries and demonstrate power autonomy and mobility capabilities while being resistant against dust and water to permit their use within a realistic construction environment.

In fact, the development of the CONCERT technologies is steered by use-case scenarios from the construction industry, a sector with significantly high socio-economic impact, offering at the same time an extremely challenging, yet highly motivating and relevant domain for demonstrating and validating the quick deployment and interoperability of the CONCERT technologies.

The CONCERT technologies will be tested in realistic construction scenarios thanks to the involvement in the project of a Polish SME, Budimex and the CIOP-PIB, the Polish Central Institute for Labour Protection.

During the assessment, researchers will involve construction workers to determine how to best use the CONCERT technologies by taking into account the needs and criticalities on construction sites as well as by evaluating the skills required to be transferred to workers.

In addition to the application in the construction sector which is the central focus of the project, the robots developed in CONCERT may also be adapted and find relevant use in other domains in the future, such as in evolving and dynamic production lines in manufacturing, warehouses and logistics, agriculture, inspection, maintenance and in emergency operations within unstructured environments.

The consortium involves 6 partners coming from different European countries: Italian Institute of Technology (Italy) as project coordinator, the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (Germany), Fraunhofer Italia Research Scarl (Italy), Profactor GMBH (Austria), Centralny Instytut Ochrony Pracy - Panstowowy Instytut Badawczy (Poland), Budimex Spolka Akcyjna (Poland).

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