Technology

IBM's robot sidekick aims to aid field engineers

IBM MRO helper
Image caption The projector can display information to guide repair work

A robotic sidekick could soon be helping field engineers fix faulty equipment in remote locations.

Developed by IBM, the robotic helper has a projector that can overlay information on equipment to guide remote repair work.

Supervisors and experts back at base can also look and talk through the projector to oversee fault fixing.

In addition they can sketch diagrams, use a laser pointer or run videos to aid employees in the field.

The Mobile Repair and Operations (MRO) prototype has been built to help maintenance workers who are often called on to find and fix equipment on large industrial plants they have never visited before.

The innovation - which pairs a GPS-equipped smartphone with a robot arm - can guide engineers to the right location using augmented reality.

The phone's screen acts as a window on to the augmented world overlaying it with arrows, signs and other cues to help navigate through an industrial plant to the faulty equipment.

If needed, staff in a control centre can see and hear everything the field engineer is seeing and hearing via the camera and microphone mounted on the robot arm.

They can also guide the arm to get a closer look at what is broken or use its in-built projector to give advice.

This could be in the form of video guides that take engineers step-by-step through repairs or via freehand sketches that can can be projected on flat surfaces.

In addition, the arm has an in-built laser pointer that can show exactly where on a machine work should start or where parts should be placed.

Image caption The prototype makes use of two webcams and other components attached to a robotic arm

In the event of an accident, the system can also be used to help injured staff quickly find the nearest first aid station or guide them to other workers who can offer assistance.

The prototype has been developed by IBM scientists in Winchester in the UK and Haifa in Israel who worked alongside researchers from Sheffield University's Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre.

If brought to market it will compete against Motorola Solutions' HC1 headset.

The rival technology - which launched last year - allows a maintenance worker's back-up team to send blueprints and other useful information to a small screen held in front of their left eye while transmitting a video feed back to base,

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