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Project example: Robo-Mate

Half human, half machine: Working in the future with Robo-Mate

Twelve partners from seven European countries are collaborating to develop the intelligent exoskeleton “Robo-Mate”. This wearable, power-assisted exoskeleton will improve industrial working conditions. The EU research project is being coordinated by the ZHAW.

Technological advancement and automation are facilitating many tasks in the industrial sector. However, numerous production steps and difficult-to-automate jobs cannot be carried out without human assistance. According to studies, around 44 million industrial employees in the EU suffer from musculoskeletal conditions due to high physical stress. This results in costs of more than 240 billion euro annually and lowers company productivity. A new research project aims to counteract this trend. Robo-Mate is an intelligent system that combines human flexibility and technological strength in a versatile deployable exoskeleton. It should facilitate the lifting of heavy loads in particular and thus reduce the number of work-related accidents and sicknesses.

Operated with intuitive reactions and movements

“Wearing Robo-Mate while working does not require any special training in robot systems or programming language. Instead, it uses intuitive reactions and movements to control the device,” explains project coordinator Hans Wernher van de Venn from the Institute of Mechatronic Systems at the ZHAW School of Engineering. “Lifting loads, working with your arms extended above the head and the installation or disassembly of components will be facilitated greatly and the burden on employees reduced.” Various sensors will recognise and interpret the movements of the user. In contrast to existing robot systems, the flexible Robo-Mate can be deployed in a range of industrial sectors thanks to its intuitive operation by humans.

A wearable intelligent shell

The project, which will run for three years and is funded by the EU with approximately 4.5 million euros, is still in the development phase but its planning is very concrete. The robot system will comprise a fully moveable and flexible upper body with protective shields for the neck and back muscles, while the lower body has a mainly supportive and weight-bearing function.

A helmet with a screen and headset will allow all of the key information about the work processes and safety measures to be transmitted to the user in real time. The information required for this will be generated by intelligent control programmes with object recognition as well as a factory information system.

“Wearing Robo-Mate while working does not require any special training in robot systems or programming language. Instead, it uses intuitive reactions and move-ments to control the device.”

Prof Dr Hans Wernher van de Venn, project coordinator, Institute of Mechatronic Systems (IMS)

From a virtual to a real factory

During the three-year project, 12 partners from universities and various industrial sectors from all over Europe will work together on the interdisciplinary venture. After the concept and the technical and ergonomic system were defined, the prototypes for the system components such as arms, legs, back and hands are being developed. First, the Fraunhofer IAO will simulate the exoskeleton in a virtual factory. Based on the simulation findings, a prototype of the entire robot construction will be produced and tested extensively in the laboratory of the ZHAW School of Engineering as well in the research centre of Italian auto manufacturer Fiat (CRF). Finally, the exoskeletons will be deployed and analysed in the manufacturing plants of the French project partner Indra SAS as well as the Romanian automotive supplier Compa S.A. for use in automotive assembly.