IBM robotic coworker will help engineers fix broken systems

IBM shows off mobile maintenance prototype

When it comes to fixing broken systems, especially in remote locations, engineers could soon turn to a new mobile robotic system IBM is developing that could help them more easily find the broken equipment, offer up information about the system and provide real-time visual support from supervising experts.

The mobile maintenance, repair and operations prototype includes an application that lets a supervisor  monitor an engineer's progress towards the maintenance site, and a robotic arm coupled with a camera system, a microphone and laser pointer.

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According to IBM, once on site, an engineer can use the smart phone and QR codes to locate and identify an asset and receive maintenance instructions. The smart phone app uses augmented reality technology to overlay points of interest over a plan of the site. One of the greatest challenges service engineers face is finding broken equipment in a large, unfamiliar manufacturing location.  

Once working on the broken system, if help is needed, an expert located at headquarters or a vendor location could view the on-site engineer's workspace and support them with real-time video and audio links using a camera and a small projector mounted at the end of a remotely controlled robotic arm. The expert, from a management console, is also able to project a pointer and information such as free-hand sketches, assembly instructions and CAD images directly onto the workspace or a nearby wall, if needed, IBM stated.

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The system is completely transportable and operates hands free so the engineer can place it anywhere and lets them direct data to either their mobile phone or the robot's projector, said Richard Lanyon-Hogg, IBM Technical Director for the industrial sector. 

IBM says remote support is much more efficient if on-site and remote engineers can share a visual representation of the site workspace and the on-site engineer's actions. To date this has been accomplished, and only in part, by on-site engineers using hand-held cameras, mounted head-gear or specialist glasses. The new system provides the supervisor with complete visual independence and a more stable video image; on-site engineers are able to work with greater freedom or, in the case of those with specialist glasses, freed from the tiring need to re-focus their eyes, IBM said.

The system can report data into a company's maintenance operation or asset management systems as well as enable a video audit trail if a system needs to be revisited. And if an accident occurs the engineer can be directed to help or located more easily by emergency personnel.

IBM says the smart maintenance project is the result of collaboration with the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) which works to develop high-tech systems that can resolve advanced manufacturing problems.  There was no word on when the system might become widely available.

The IBM prototype is in part similar to a head-mounted, voice-controlled computer introduced by Motorola Solutions has unveiled a head-mounted, voice-controlled computer that's targeted at the military and other industries where workers need hands-free access to information.  Motorola's HC1 device runs on an ARM processor and has an optional camera to send back real-time video over a wireless network.  The HC1 will augment what users see by providing additional data and multiple units could be networked together and share information.

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