Approaching robots offer more agility, sophistication, and value

by Andy Oram
May 13, 2015

This article originally appeared on the International Manufacturing Technology Show site.

Freedom from drudgery, one of the big promises of industrialization, is making new strides as technical improvements allow robots to reach more places, do more things, and adapt to more situations. You don’t have to go to Mars to see such sophistication in action—advances are taking place in labs and soon on the shop floor.

The human hand—often singled out, along with our brain, as the source of our species’s success—is an amazingly adaptive tool that can just as readily wield an axe to fell a tree as turn a needle to sew the intricate designs found on classic kimonos. No robot appenditure has been designed with such flexibility. But we’re making great advances and we’ll explore more conversations like these at the upcoming Solid Conference in June.

A few days ago I assembled a household item and noticed how much my success depended on infinitesimal signals from my fingers to do something as simple as placing a screw properly. An article in the most recent Communications of the ACM (the flagship magazine in computing, published by the Association for Computing Machinery) recounted experiments producing radically more sophisticated robots that can perform such subtle tasks. When one kind of robot presses against the material it’s working with, the pressure affects a layer of metallic paint behind the robot’s rubber coating and conveys the shape of the material to an LED. Software then determines how to reposition the arm with tiny changes similar to how I felt my way with the screwdriver.

In that case, the robot transformed pressure into light so that the LED could sense tiny changes in the robot’s relation to its material. Other robots accomplish similar tasks through fingers equipped with conductive rubber and capacitive plates. Capacitance controls the flow of electrical current, which then becomes the way for the robot to sense changes.

Simple robots have forward-moving and backward-moving wheels, but the well-known Roomba vacuum-cleaner demonstrates that even consumer-grade robots can incorporate wheels sophisticated enough to navigate around furniture of any shape and go on and off carpets. The company offers replacement wheels for just $30, and I’m betting the price includes a generous mark-up. Other robots use multidirectional wheels for balance, and the casters that hold wheels can be equipped with springs to absorb shocks as the robot moves.

Because robots can replace human operators, it can reassure factory workers to learn that robot manufacturers are recognizing the continued need for humans and are designing robots to be sensitive to the presence of people next to them. Robots can detect obstacles (such as people) and stop moving in order to prevent accidents. On farms, they are recognizing the difference between ripe and unripe fruit through its color. Robots can also learn from humans, imitating the behavior of a worker and then repeating it so that the worker can move away from the assembly line to something presumably more interesting.

Although the most complex technologies, such as walking robots and chemical sensors, find their uses in harsh environments and other unusual conditions, plenty of recent advances can affect ordinary industrial use. These advances are worth following, as we expand our notion of what machines can do. It takes a human to think up creative ways to deploy robots effectively.

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