The setup could also take care of household chores, they said.
“Smaller companies can’t afford software programmers or expensive mobile robots,” said Karthik Ramani, from Purdue University.
“We’ve made it to where they can do the programming themselves, dramatically bringing down the costs of building and programming mobile robots,” he said.
The app offers options for how those tasks can be performed, such as under a certain time limit, on repeat or after a machine has done its job.
After programming, the user drops the phone into a dock attached to the robot.
While the phone needs to be familiar with the type of robot it is “becoming” to perform tasks, the dock can be wirelessly connected to the robot’s basic controls and motor.
The phone is both the eyes and brain for the robot, controlling its navigation and tasks.
“As long as the phone is in the docking station, it is the robot. Whatever you move about and do is what the robot will do,” Ramani said.
To get the robot to execute a task that involves wirelessly interacting with another object or machine, the user simply scans the QR code of that object or machine while programming, effectively creating a network of so-called “Internet of Things.”
Once docked, the phone (as the robot) uses information from the QR code to work with the objects.
The researchers demonstrated this with robots watering a plant, vacuuming and transporting objects.
The user can also monitor the robot remotely through the app and make it start or stop a task, such as to go charge its battery or begin a 3D-printing job, researchers said.
The app provides an option to automatically record video when the phone is docked, so that the user can play it back and evaluate a workflow, they said.
These types of algorithms are also used in self-driving cars and drones.
Since creating the prototype, Ramani’s lab has been testing it in real factory settings to evaluate user-driven applications.
The app is a step towards creating future “smart” factories, powered by artificial intelligence and augmented reality, that complement and increase worker productivity rather than replacing them, he said.