When is a robot really a robot?

December 17, 2012

Say the word “robot” and two very different pictures will immediately come to mind. One is of the industrial robot, remembered clips of car commercials filmed in manufacturing plants, sparks flying or paint misting as robot arms complete their tasks behind safety cages. The other is of Hollywood robot, the humanoid butler who zips around the house bringing us snacks and answering the door.

But as technology develops and new applications are engineered, the “traditional” picture of robotics is changing. With new roles in healthcare and at home, under the sea and on other planets, how do we define what is and isn’t a robot?

Is It Really a Robot?
by Jennifer Hicks

Steve Cousin’s, CEO of Willow Garage told Forbes he believes that robotics is still in the early stages and there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“Over the next five years, we will see more robotic platforms come out of the cage in the industrial space, like Baxter, and begin to move into hospitals, our homes and work environments,” said Cousins. “We will build more mobile platforms that will only become autonomous when it becomes more affordable.”

But ask people what a robot is and they will tell you different things.

Read the full article at Forbes. What would your definition of a robot be?


Pulley System Gives Robot Real Muscle

December 12, 2012

A working human body requires more than just hooking up muscles and nerves, as poor Doctor Frankenstein found out. But researchers of humanoid robots are finding that sometimes the original design is the best. Swapping out muscles and arteries for pulleys and motors, they’ve come up with a robot that’s not afraid to flex its muscles.

Kenshiro Robot Gets New Muscles and Bones
by Angelica Lim

Why try and mimic the human body? It turns out that getting a robot’s weight right is a tricky problem. Yuto Nakanishi, the head of the project, spoke about the weight problems of Kenzoh, Kenshiro’s tendon-driven upper-body robot ancestor. Kenzoh was a hearty 45 kg, just for the upper body. Scaling up, they projected that a full-body Kenzoh could weigh as much as 100kg!

That was a lot of weight for a relatively small robot. So they decided to design a robot with the same weight ratios of a human. For example, a 55 kg boy would have about a 5 kg thigh and 2.5 kg calf. Kenshiro copies that ratio, with a 4 kg thigh and 2.76 kg calf. Balance is key.

Weight was one thing, but the researchers also tried to mimic the muscle torque and joint speeds. Kenshiro’s total power output is 5 times greater than Kojiro’s, allowing it to do things like the gymnastics-like leg lift in the video above. Kenshiro can get almost the same amount of joint torque as a human, with joint angular speed not quite at human level, at 70-100 degrees per second. It’s a trade-off in weight and power: bigger and stronger motors are often heavier.

Read the full article at IEEE Spectrum. What are some industrial applications that could benefit from a humanoid robot’s flexibility? On the other hand, what are some applications that robots are better at because they don’t have to adhere to a human-like design?

Friday Fun Video: Pixar Lamp Comes to Life

December 7, 2012

Pixar movies hold an amazing record of being powerful and charming, but they first captured our hearts with the lovable lamp that’s part of their logo. Some university students created their own playful lamp for one of their courses. He may not be much for lighting their textbooks, but he would make for a good study-break distraction.

Via io9.com.

Robots and Vision for Semiconductors and Electronics Manufacturing

December 5, 2012

In the newest article on Robotics Online, Bennett Brumson looks at robotics in the semiconductor and electronics industry, taking special note of the trends and unique requirements for automation systems there.

Robots and Vision for Semiconductors and Electronics Manufacturing
by Bennett Brumson , Contributing Editor 

Delta robot performing connector assembly tasks, courtesy FANUC Robotics America Corp.Robotics have long been a staple in the electronics and semiconductor industry. Complex assemblies and a plethora of tiny parts make flexible robotics the ideal solution for the rapidly-changing electronics and semiconductor market.

Robotics for the electronics and semiconductor sector will be a component of Automate 2013, the trade show and conference covering a wide array of automation technologies.

“Kawasaki’s customers, the Semiconductor Equipment suppliers, use robots to manufacture wafers before those wafers are sliced and diced into microchips. As microchips get smaller and smaller, they require less power to function which is why smart phones are thinner and able to do so many things,” says Barney Huang, Director of Sales and Marketing at Kawasaki Robotics USA Inc. (Wixom, Michigan). “Microchips are more densely packed onto electronic devices.” Robotics play a key role in facilitating production of electronics and semiconductors, Huang says.

Need for Speed
Electronics embodies the essence of the fickle consumer market. Manufacturers need speed and flexibility to profitably tap into a market segment before consumer tastes change. “I see a trend in the need for smaller and faster robots. Using small robots makes sense for manufacturers to handle small parts. Production lines need to move very fast in the electronics and semiconductor industry,” says Chris Blanchette, Account Manager with FANUC Robotics America Corp. (Rochester Hills, Michigan).

Continuing, Blanchette says, “Robot makers build different types of robots to meet the needs of the electronics and semiconductor market. These types of robots include very fast delta-style robots. Also, six-axis articulation is a necessary requirement to orient small parts in more than one plane or off axis.” Six-axis articulation in conjunction with high speed is an important trend in the small part electronics industry, says Blanchette.

Blanchette goes on to say, “Robotic assembly of connectors is a growing trend. This application requires precision and tolerance because of so many small parts. Component assembly on circuit boards requires finesse during the assembly process which cannot be done with high-speed chip shooters.” Blanchette adds robots provide a very cost-effective solution to populate components onto circuit boards. “After the assembly of electronic circuit boards, the boards must be assembled into a package. Robots are a great tool for assembling those packages into electronic modules.”

Moving silicon wafers at high speeds without causing damage is a fundamental task robots are increasingly called on to perform. As wafer sizes become progressively larger, that task becomes more demanding. Robotics are more than capable of meeting throughput requirements without causing damage to delicate components.

Read the full article at Robotics Online. Interested in seeing robotic systems for the electronics and semiconductor industry at work? Come to the 2013 Automate Show, where companies will have working exhibits and full solutions for your automation needs.

Personal Robot Closer to Doing Your Laundry

December 3, 2012

Robots used in industrial settings often perform dull, dangerous, or repetitive functions — if only they could take over similar tasks in people’s homes! While the price of personal robots is still prohibitive and the technology is still developing, a robotic housekeeper isn’t the science fiction it was 50 years ago. Researchers are working hard to open up a whole new consumer market in personal robots.

Personal robots moving closer to reality
Reported by John Blackstone

While fantasies of robotic maids may still be a dream, the field of robotics is progressing rapidly and the PR2 is at the center of that progress. “We created this open source software platform that is what Windows is to the PC,” Cousins explained. “Everybody’s sharing software and we can make progress to this future where we see robots.”

Until Willow Garage created the PR2, each robotics researcher had to build their own robot from scratch before they could even begin experimenting. Pieter Abbeel, professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “You spent so much time building and maintaining that contraption that your research would be really slowed down.”

Abbeel got one of 11 PR2s that Willow Garage gave to university researchers who agreed to share their work to speed the evolution of artificial intelligence.

Abbeel decided to teach his robot to fold laundry — not as mundane a task as you might think. Abbeel explained, “The big challenge in robotics right now is how to make robots deal with variability. Whenever things change around the robot, it needs to understand what it is that has changed and how to act on it. Any time you present a pile of laundry, it’s going to be different. You’re manipulating this towels, T-shirts, and so forth. The more variability, the harder the task is going to be.”

To be of practical use in the home, robots need to figure out a changing world around them. To do that, the PR2 is loaded with sensors that reveal its surroundings in 3D. It knows when someone is in a room with it and sees the person in detail. But while seeing is one step, understanding is another.

Read the full article at CBS News. Where do you see the biggest application for personal, in-home robots? What chores would you gladly pass off to a helping robotic hand?

Friday Fun Video: The Throwable Surveillance Robot

November 30, 2012

Most of the time, we’re not encouraged to throw, manhandle, or drop kick our technology. If we had a dollar for every time we heard “This is why we can’t have nice things,” we’d be able to buy new nice things. However, iRobot has no such qualms about their new robot — they want you to throw it around.

Fast Company Vs. The Robots
by Neil Ungerleider

The FirstLook is a camera-equipped throwable surveillance robot that is hardy enough to survive a fall from a second story window. It has flippers that allow it to climb up walls and stairs, and is incredibly light–the FirstLook weighs only five pounds. This reporter, in fact, found it out to his chagrin when a quick toss of the robot nearly inflicted damage on a nearby wall. They have much more impact than one would expect.

iRobot’s intended audience for the FirstLook is emergency first responders and the military. A robust video game-like controller allows viewers to move the robot like a remote-controlled vehicle while also controlling the camera. For emergency situations where surveillance of a building that humans can’t safely enter is required, the FirstLook is ideal.

Click here to see the video at Fast Company. Now, if we could only make our cell phones this hardy…

Website Connects Startup Designers to Factories

November 28, 2012

Anyone can have an idea for a great new product. Many people can raise the capital required for the initial startup costs, especially with crowdfunding options like Kickstarter. But not everyone has access to the manufacturing facilities and equipment needed to launch their new business. ‘Maker’s Row’ attempts to change that, connecting designers to manufacturing resources.

‘Maker’s Row’ Bridges Daunting Gap Between Design and Manufacturing
by Joseph Flaherty

3D printers make it easy to create one-off products. Kickstarter gives makers capital to produce at scale. But there aren’t many resources to help navigate the world of high-volume manufacturing. Maker’s Row, a marketplace that connects designers and American factories, aims to fix that by acclimating creators to the culture of manufacturing and making sense of obscure terms like AWO to ZQC production.

The Maker’s Row website allows designers to search for factories with keywords, browse projects the factories have worked on and, in some cases, see videos of the shops and founder in action. The site’s design and videos manage to make manufacturing feel glamorous, and even a little patriotic.

The company grew out of an organic need. Co-founder Matthew Burnett worked for Marc Jacobs and Izod before launching his own line of leather goods. He convinced a friend, Tanya Menendez, who had worked at Google and Goldman Sachs, to join him and help grow the business. After dealing with a costly manufacturing setback overseas, they realized that reorganizing the trillion-dollar manufacturing industry had more upsides than producing well-tailored accessories. They recruited a web designer named Scott Weiner and launched the service.

“Our primary mission is to bring outsourced manufacturing back home, and to plant the seeds of the next generation of businesses that will be able to easily find American manufacturing partners,” Menendez says.

Read the full article at Wired. What do you think? Will the next wave of American manufacturing come from home-run businesses?