4 Robotics Trends from the International Robot Exhibition 2013

A robotics expert describes the hottest trends from the Tokyo robot show

4 min read
Nachi dual arm robot
Nachi's dual-arm robot on display at the International Robot Exhibition 2013 in Tokyo.
Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

Last month, I attended the International Robot Exhibition (IREX) in Tokyo. It was a mesmerizing display of robots—a gigantic hall filled with thousands of them. Robotics companies bring their latest and greatest robots to this exhibition. As you walk through the show floor, you can see a wide variety of amazing advances in the field of robotics.

I noticed several interesting trends in new product offerings from 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 robotics trends based on products that several established companies were showing off at IREX:

1. Dual arm robots: Humans (and many other primates) rely on two arms to perform complex manipulation tasks, but industrial robots for a very long 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 the industrial robots community has changed its mind over the last couple of years. Many companies at IREX were displaying new robots with two arms, including Seiko Epson, Nachi, ABB, and Kawada. 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 natural tendency to use both of their hands when doing a task. Imagine cooking dinner with one hand tied behind your back! So dual arm configuration should make it much easier for humans and robots to collaborate on complex tasks. Again, many companies had dual arm robots on display, but I picked below two examples: a robot from Nachi and another from ABB:

Nachi and ABB dual arm robots


Photos: S.K. Gupta

2. 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 20 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 capability will enable new advances in visual servoing and enhance the accuracy in 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. In contrast, adding eyes to the hands of robots moves them away from an anthropomorphic configuration. Cameras are inexpensive, so robots can afford to have eyes on their limbs. I am sure that many humans have wished that they had a pair of extra eyes like that. Below are two robots that illustrate this trend: one is an industrial-type manipulator from Motoman; the other is a result of the previous trend: a dual arm robot from Kawada.

Motoman and Nextage robots


Photos: Motoman; Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

3. Wearable robots: There were many different kinds of robots on display that people could 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 (a stroke, for example). 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. I saw at least four different exoskeletons and assistive devices at IREX. Below are two examples: the Walking Assist Device from Honda and the HAL robot suit from Cyberdyne.

Honda and Cyberdyne robot suits


Photos: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

4. 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. This is not a new technology, of course, but it's great to see that companies are reporting impressive workspace sizes, high repeatability, and large payload capacity for an ever expanding range of applications. These robots are bringing speeds comparable to the hardware-based fixed automation to the new era of flexible, programmable automation. I saw at least half a dozen robots of this variety and below I picked two to illustrate this trend: the ABB FlexPicker and a FANUC pick-and-place robot.

ABB and Fanuc robots


Photos: ABB; Erico Guizzo/IEEE Spectrum

Satyandra K. Gupta is a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland, in College Park. This post originally appeared in his personal blog, "Pursuit of Unorthodox Ideas."

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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