Three innovations in industrial robots

In 1969, Victor Scheinman invented the Stanford Arm, the first all-electric six-axis articulated robot – the predecessor to the robot arms we use today. Here, EU Automation’s Jonathan Wilkins discusses three ways robots have diversified over the next five decades.

With more than 384,000 industrial robots installed worldwide in 2018, according to the International Federation of Robotics, robots are growing in popularity.

In fact, they have become ubiquitous in industrial installations and they are not only used for the applications you would expect.

Thick skins

An innovation in the field of robotics is an electronic skin that gives robots a sense of touch.

Known as ‘Wootzkin’ and developed at the University of Edinburgh, electronic skin is made up of nanostructures and includes underlying electronics that can be used in targeted drug delivery or in the technology of gripping.

Like human skin, it can give the robot feedback on force, pressure, temperature, and humidity, making it easier for robots to perform tasks that require a high level of dexterity.

The size of the sensitive area can be varied, between 50 microns and 12 inches, adapting the robot to the specific needs of the application.

Wootzkin operates in temperatures from 0 to 180°C, which means a robot can perform skillful tasks in conditions that humans cannot withstand, while maintaining a delicate approach to fragile objects.

Self-assembly

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have produced a kit that can be used to build a variety of robots using just a handful of components.

Professor Neil Gershenfeld was intrigued by the fact that all living things are made up of 20 amino acids placed in myriad combinations and wanted to implement this concept in robotics.

The kit consists of five different components, including rigid and flexible components, a coil, electromagnetic parts and a magnet, in five millimeter scale. The parts can be assembled into different shapes, such as a small walking motor and a robot that turns the gears.

The goal of the research group is to develop a purpose-built manufacturing robot from standard components that can be easily disassembled and reused.

Arise in agriculture

Robotic innovation takes place in fields as well as in factories. Progress has been made with the creation of the Global Unmanned Spray System (GUSS), for example, a fully automated unmanned vehicle for spraying orchards with pesticides. J

The system helps fill labor shortages and is said to be more efficient than manual spraying.

GUSS creates a safer environment for workers, reducing their exposure to potentially harmful chemicals used in pesticides. It uses lasers and tactile bumpers that allow the robot to be aware of its surroundings and immediately stop when it detects an object, eliminating potential damage to products and people.

When creating GUSS, the biggest problem was that the GPS didn’t consistently work under the treetops.

To overcome this, sensors and software, such as cellular connectivity, have been implemented to complement GPS. Cellular and radio signals are transmitted to the control vehicle, operated by a person, allowing multiple robots to relay position data, statistics and a live feed from its front-mounted camera.

GUSS also gives farmers the ability to analyze all relevant information, such as the volume of pesticides used on each plant, which can be helpful when marketing crops to buyers. Those using stand-alone machines, like GUSS, will see fewer errors made, resulting in less wasted time and increased cost savings.

Mavis R. Bernier