How Robots are Gaining Their Sense of Sight

It's easy for you to sort through a pile of tools in a bin and pick out the right part. That's been a challenging task for robots. Robots are becoming more sensory with improved field of vision and depth perception. Read this post and discover what sight means for the future of robotics and industrial automation.


Robotics is at a turning point in the use of the sensor technology that powers a robot's visual ability. It's estimated that 90 percent of robots today don't use sensors, as noted in the article Intelligent Robots: A Feast for the Senses.

Robots have often stayed in one place and often surrounded by cages. It repeated the same task with the same size part over and over. There was no need to "see."

Companies have used robots for their tireless repetition, yet the demand for customization is expanding the types of services they can provide. Sorting through a bin and selecting objects of varying sizes is now possible.

Sensor technology is shaping the future of robots. Sensors are coming down in price and the lower costs make use more widespread.

“If we look at sensor-based robotics, we have the technology in many cases to be able to engineer solutions for picking particular objects and to do it very well," said Henrik Christensen, the Executive Director of the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia.

He was quoted in Intelligent Robots and pointed out that a modest quality laser range sensor cost about $10,000 or more a decade ago and now they're about $2,000.

Random Bin Picking

Getting specific items from a bin has been one of the major challenges for robotics manufacturers to overcome. Robots themselves are machines where perception or seeing is integrated with the ability to stop and go and perform a task like picking up an object.

Sight is one critical component in random bin picking. An editorial titled Random Bin Picking from Midwest Engineered Systems, Inc. gives an overview of robotic sight:

"Enhanced vision systems with 3D cameras, can track, replicate, and map the surrounding environment. When used for bin picking, vision systems must be precise; this allows robots to effectively navigate in small spaces."

Human Robot Collaboration

Sensors are key in developing safe collaboration between robots and people. Robotics companies are asking for better sensors that are smaller and embedded as noted in Robotics 2015 and Beyond: Collaboration, Connectivity, and Convergence.

Traditionally, industrial robots did repetitive tasks and if a person got in the way, the robot may have stopped but it didn't change its behavior. Advanced sensor technology will let a robot know if a person moves into its work area and if it needs to change its movements.

Sensors and Software

Smarter sensors require "really smart software" as stated in Robotics 2015 and Beyond. The open-source software Moveit! makes it possible for a robot to know if a person is in the way and it has to adjust its course.

Manufacturers are staying up with trends and creating innovations with sensor-related software and products.

Universal Robotics created the Spatial Vision Robotics software which is described on the AIA website under Affordable 3D Vision Package. It calibrates sensors with robots, provides image processing, and delivers the position and pose of an object in up to six degrees of freedom.

Germany-based ISRA Vision took first place with a "Plug and Automate" package described in Innovative 3D Machine Vision Family of Products. The company took first in the "Medium-sized Businesses" category of the German Industry's Innovation Awards 2015. The portfolio includes sensors for bin picking applications and palletizing and de-palletizing solutions and de-racking applications.
Get ready to integrate robots with improved sensors into your workforce. Stay up to date on products and trends in industrial automation on A3.