Microsoft is helping developers build robot brains

As a $340 billion company, Microsoft naturally has its activities spread out over a great many areas, the least advertised of which is probably robotics. Its vast developer division includes a little-known unit focused exclusively on autonomous control software that is quietly toiling away at the most fundamental challenges standing in the way of pervasive automation.

One of the newest item on its agenda is environmental awareness, a necessity for any future with robots operating alongside humans. However, the system that Microsoft has designed to that end and made its first debut in a patent application published last week is not destined for theoretical applications, but rather the production lines where robots are already a tangible reality.

The setup involves a three-dimensional camera placed somewhere above its assigned bot with a clear view of the activity below to detect foreign objects entering the field of motion. The software controller at the core of the patent deduces the nature of the interaction and, in scenarios such as the one illustrated above, commands the manipulator to perform the most appropriate of the pre-programmed actions in its database.

That can be something as simple as grabbing a package from a worker, or steering the arm out of their way in the risk of impact to prevent accidents, which is the main application that Microsoft sees for its software.  It’s a simple but effective alternative to existing methods, which involve protective cages or lining the surrounding floor space with expensive motion sensors that have to be regularly maintained.

Complementing the programmatic safety procedures are warning lights and alarms that the controller will set off as soon as someone enters the pre-defined hazard zone. That is meant to warn off not only human workers but also any robots that find themselves into the path of their mechanical colleagues and lack biological instincts to get out of harm’s way on their own.

The software will probably be made available as a library for Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio to be implemented in custom projects, which have been the main focus of the company’s efforts so far. But the patent could also hint towards a broader effort that may see Redmond start becoming more directly involved in bringing about the coming wave of automation.

No matter what comes of the invention, though, it’s a positive step forward towards preventing accidents of the kind that claimed the life of a Volkswagen plant worker earlier this year.  And Microsoft is not alone in the effort, with others like Japan’s FANUC Corporation also working to make robots safer and thus more viable to operate around people.