Microsoft demos industrial robot linked to cloud, mobile devices

The collaboration with Kuka envisions a connected, Kinect-equipped robot platform

Microsoft is presenting a vision of how industrial robots could work more closely with people by harnessing IoT (Internet of Things), cloud networking and 3D sensing technologies, linked through Windows platforms.

In a demonstration at Hanover Messe, an industrial fair in Germany this week, Microsoft and industrial robot maker Kuka Robotics are showing an industrial robot arm that can stream movement data to Microsoft's Azure cloud computing platform for human staff overseeing production.

The Kuka machine is a lightweight, multi-jointed arm known as the Intelligent Industrial Work Assistant. Its immediate task in the demo is to thread a small tube into the back of a dishwasher. The delicate nature of the operation requires human collaboration and risks damaging the appliance, Microsoft said in a release.

In the scenario presented by the company, if the robot encounters a problem, it can notify nearby technicians via Microsoft Band wearables or Windows tablets, which can also be used to assess supply chain problems affecting the robot.

The robot assistant can be linked to a Kinect 3D motion sensor to identify technicians who arrive for troubleshooting work. A video about the collaboration shows a technician using a head-mounted display to run through a troubleshooting app while checking the robot.

The demonstration aims to highlight how Kuka's robot assistants can jointly perform tasks with humans, without needing a human controller, Microsoft said on its blog.

The demonstration is the latest in industry-wide efforts to make industrial robots work with human colleagues more easily. For instance, Rethink Robotics' Baxter, introduced in 2012, and Sawyer, launched last month, are designed to be collaborative robots that are safe enough for people to work alongside, instead of being isolated in cages.

Last year, Microsoft shut down its robotics research group amid a larger shakeup by CEO Satya Nadella.

Tim Hornyak covers Japan and emerging technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Tim on Twitter at @robotopia.

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