Robotics, AI projects highlight ABB R&D efforts

March 5, 2019
The Innovation Lab offers a glimpse into some of the projects at ABB's Corporate Research Center

Among the R&D projects on display at ABB Customer Week is the Rover, a six-wheeled autonomous vehicle that can operate in either remote control mode or completely autonomously, depending on the application.

Research and development has long been a cornerstone of ABB’s business model, but research projects often don’t get much visibility until they are announced as fully-baked products. The Innovation Lab at this year’s ABB Customer World in Houston offers a glimpse into some of the projects the company’s Corporate Research Center in Raleigh, NC, has been working on.

It comes as no surprise that this year’s sampling is heavy on robotics and machine smarts. Robotic and artificial intelligence (AI) applications are proliferating rapidly as the cost of component technologies continues to decline.

Case in point: the Rover, a six-wheeled autonomous vehicle (pictured) with two sensor pods capable of performing a variety of tasks. The rover itself can operate in either remote control mode or completely autonomously, and the sensor pods can be equipped with any number of different instruments depending on the application.

The unit on display in the Technology & Solutions Center is outfitted with laser scanners and video cameras that could be used, for example, to map the interior of underground mines without human intervention. The rover is capable of navigating over and around obstacles, as demonstrated on a small obstacle course on the show floor.

Robots are increasingly used for inspection applications in remote areas, and ABB has developed such a device to monitor the miles-long conveyor belts used in the mining industry. The robot has been dubbed “rail runner” because it moves along a rail attached to the conveyor. Lasers and various imaging sensors inspect the rollers to identify potential failures before they occur. This represents a major improvement as it obviates the need for human inspectors and ensures continuity of operations. A video shows the device in action on a real mine conveyor.

Also on display in the Innovation Lab are voice-controlled field devices, a “smart” camera capable of reading warning placards on shipping containers, and a simplified programming language called Coblox that allows even untrained workers to rapidly program industrial robots to do basic tasks. The exhibit features an ABB YuMi dual-arm robot that visitors can program, and demonstrates the potential for robotics to be democratized across a much wider range of applications.

These projects represent just a fraction of the work going on at ABB’s Raleigh lab, one of seven major R&D centers around the world. If past is precedent, we may find one or more of them in ABB’s product lineup in the coming years.