Saturday, November 23, 2013

International Robot Exhibition 2013: Interesting Trends and their Implications

I attended the International Robot Exhibition (iREX) in Tokyo in November 2013.  It was a mesmerizing display of robots – a gigantic hall filled with thousands of robots.  Robotics companies bring their latest and greatest robots to this exhibition.  As you walked through the exhibition hall, you saw a wide variety of amazing advances in the field of robotics.

I noticed several common trends in new product offerings from many different companies. The underlying technologies behind these products were proposed many years ago, but for a while these were serving niche markets. However, it appears that suddenly these technologies have become mainstream, and several different large established companies are featuring new products based on these ideas. So finally after many years of wait, these ideas have moved from labs to the mainstream robotics industry. 

Here is my pick of four noteworthy trends based on products offered by established companies in robotics space: 

Dual Arm Robots: Humans (and many other primates) have two arms, but industrial robots for the longest time have featured only single arms. The argument was that if a task needed two arms, you can buy two arms and mount them next to each other.  The mainstream robotics companies resisted the idea of connecting two arms to a body and selling it as an integrated package. However, it appears that thinking in the industrial robots community has changed over the last couple of years. Many companies at iREX were displaying new robots with two arms. In my opinion, the dual arm robot configuration will provide new advances in the dexterous manipulation area where two arms can be moved in a coordinated way to work with complex tools. Humans have a naturally tendency to utilize both of their hands when doing a task. Imagine cooking dinner with one hand tied behind your back! So dual arm configuration should it make it much easier for humans and robots to collaborate on complex tasks.    

ABB Dual Arm Robot
Nachi Dual Arm Robot
Eyes on the Hand: I saw several robots with cameras mounted very close to the hand. This configuration gives robots unobstructed close-up view of the parts being manipulated. This idea was proposed more than twenty years ago, but there were reservations in implementing it on the shop floor due to concerns about acquiring quality images and registering the images with a fast moving camera. I am happy to see that these challenges have been overcome and this configuration is featured on many robots. This configuration will enable new advances in visual servoing and enhance the accuracy of the fine manipulation of objects previously unseen by the robot. It is interesting to note that in the first trend reported above, companies created robots that embraced the anthropomorphic configuration. However, this trend moved robots away from anthropomorphic configuration by placing eyes on the hand. Cameras are inexpensive, so robots can afford to have eyes on the limbs. I am sure that many humans have wished that they had a pair of extra eyes.

Motoman Robot with Camera on Hand
Wearable Robots: There were many different kinds of robots on display that people can wear to enhance their capabilities, ranging from walking assist devices to exoskeletons. Some of these robots are targeting the physical therapy and rehabilitation market to help people recover from injuries or loss of motor functions due to medical complications (e.g., stroke). Some robots are targeting the assistive technology market to help people cope with diminished abilities due to aging or other medical conditions. It appears that the robotics industry has combined high efficiency actuators, lightweight structural materials, and new battery technologies to finally create useful products. Wearable robots are expected to positively impact the quality of life as the average human lifespan continues to increase due to the advances in medicine. They also provide new ways to carry out physical therapy and rehabilitation. I believe that they will eventually enter the sports market to help with athlete training. There is plenty of room in the amateur market too. It will be great to have a wearable robot that can teach you how to swing your golf club.

Honda Walking Assist Device
High Speed Pick and Place Robots Based on Parallel Kinematics:  Parallel kinematics based robots hold significant promise because the actuators can be placed near the base of the robot, significantly reducing the inertia of the moving links and enabling high speed operation. I was happy to see that every major company was featuring high speed pick and place robots based on parallel kinematics. Companies were reporting impressive workspace sizes, high repeatability, and large payload capacity in robots based on parallel kinematics. These robots are bringing speeds comparable to the hardware based fixed automation to programmable automation.               
ABB Flex Picker
Kawasaki Delta Robot