Malleable robot arm
A bendable structure allows you to reconfigure this robot arm based on the task it needs to perform.
Image: Imperial College London

The majority of robot arms are built out of some combination of long straight tubes and actuated joints. This isn’t surprising, since our limbs are built the same way, which was a clever and efficient bit of design. By adding more tubes and joints (or degrees of freedom), you can increase the versatility of your robot arm, but the tradeoff is that complexity, weight, and cost will increase, too.

At ICRA, researchers from Imperial College London’s REDS Lab, headed by Nicolas Rojas, introduced a design for a robot that’s built around a malleable structure rather than a rigid one, allowing you to improve how versatile the arm is without having to add extra degrees of freedom. The idea is that you’re no longer constrained to static tubes and joints but can instead reconfigure your robot to set it up exactly the way you want and easily change it whenever you feel like.

Inside of that bendable section of arm are layers and layers of mylar sheets, cut into flaps and stacked on top of one another so that each flap is overlapping or overlapped by at least 11 other flaps. The mylar is slippery enough that under most circumstances, the flaps can move smoothly against each other, letting you adjust the shape of the arm. The flaps are sealed up between latex membranes, and when air is pumped out from between the membranes, they press down on each other and turn the whole structure rigid, locking itself in whatever shape you’ve put it in.

Malleable robot arm The malleable part of the robot consists of layers of mylar sheets, cut into flaps that can move smoothly against each other, letting you adjust the shape of the arm. The flaps are sealed up between latex membranes, and when air is pumped out from between the membranes, they press down on each other and turn the whole structure rigid, locking itself in whatever shape you’ve put it in. Image: Imperial College London

The nice thing about this system is that it’s a sort of combination of a soft robot and a rigid robot—you get the flexibility (both physical and metaphorical) of a soft system, without necessarily having to deal with all of the control problems. It’s more mechanically complex than either (as hybrid systems tend to be), but you save on cost, size, and weight, and reduce the number of actuators you need, which tend to be points of failure. You do need to deal with creating and maintaining a vacuum, and the fact that the malleable arm is not totally rigid, but depending on your application, those tradeoffs could easily be worth it.

For more details, we spoke with first author Angus B. Clark via email.

IEEE Spectrum: Where did this idea come from?

Angus Clark: The idea of malleable robots came from the realization that the majority of serial robot arms have 6 or more degrees of freedom (DoF)—usually rotary joints—yet are typically performing tasks that only require 2 or 3 DoF. The idea of a robot arm that achieves flexibility and adaptation to tasks but maintains the simplicity of a low DoF system, along with the rapid development of variable stiffness continuum robots for medical applications, inspired us to develop the malleable robot concept.

What are some ways in which a malleable robot arm could provide unique advantages, and what are some potential applications that could leverage these advantages?

Malleable robots have the ability to complete multiple traditional tasks, such as pick and place or bin picking operations, without the added bulk of extra joints that are not directly used within each task, as the flexibility of the robot arm is provided by ​a malleable link instead. This results in an overall smaller form factor, including weight and footprint of the robot, as well as a lower power requirement and cost of the robot as fewer joints are needed, without sacrificing adaptability. This makes the robot ideal for scenarios where any of these factors are critical, such as in space robotics—where every kilogram saved is vital—or in rehabilitation robotics, where cost reduction may facilitate adoption, to name two examples. Moreover, the collaborative soft-robot-esque nature of malleable robots also tends towards collaborative robots in factories working safely alongside and with humans.

“The idea of malleable robots came from the realization that the majority of serial robot arms have 6 or more degrees of freedom (DoF), yet are typically performing tasks that only require 2 or 3 DoF”

Compared to a conventional rigid link between joints, what are the disadvantages of using a malleable link?

Currently the maximum stiffness of a malleable link is considerably weaker than that of an equivalent solid steel rigid link, and this is one of the key areas we are focusing research on improving as motion precision and accuracy are impacted. We have created the largest existing variable stiffness link at roughly 800 mm length and 50 mm diameter, which suits malleable robots towards small and medium size workspaces. Our current results evaluating this accuracy are good, however achieving a uniform stiffness across the entire malleable link can be problematic due to the production of wrinkles under bending in the encapsulating membrane. As demonstrated by our SCARA topology results, this can produce slight structural variations resulting in reduced accuracy.

Does the robot have any way of knowing its own shape? Potentially, could this system reconfigure itself somehow?

Currently we compute the robot topology using motion tracking, with markers placed on the joints of the robot. Using distance geometry, we are then able to obtain the forward and inverse kinematics of the robot, of which we can use to control the end effector (the gripper) of the robot. Ideally, in the future we would love to develop a system that no longer requires the use of motion tracking cameras.

As for the robot reconfiguring itself, which we call an “intrinsic malleable link,” there are many methods that have been demonstrated for controlling a continuum structure, such as using positive pressure or via tendon wires, however the ability to in real-time determine the curvature of the link, not just the joint positions, is a significant hurdle to solve. However, we hope to see future development on malleable robots work towards solving this problem.

What are you working on next?

For us, refining the kinematics of the robot to enable a robust and complete system for allowing a user to collaboratively reshape the robot, while still achieving the accuracy expected from robotic systems, is our current main goal. Malleable robots are a brand new field we have introduced, and as such provide many opportunities for development and optimization. Over the coming years, we hope to see other researchers work alongside us to solve these problems.

“Design and Workspace Characterization of Malleable Robots,” by Angus B. Clark and Nicolas Rojas from Imperial College London, was presented at ICRA 2020.

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“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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