MIT Robots Can Assemble Your IKEA Furniture For You

These robots can assemble your Swedish furniture, without even looking at the instructions

2 min read
MIT Robots Can Assemble Your IKEA Furniture For You

Oh, IKEA. Your modern and affordable Scandinavian-inspired furniture is full of such promise. We tell ourselves over and over again that yes, we really are smarter than a bunch of flat pack boards and fastening devices that look like they could function as legal tender on some alien planet. It’s not true, though. We’re not smarter than a disassembled Lack table, and this is why we need robots.

Last week we saw robots that can help you put together your IKEA furniture. But now a team at MIT has gone one step further: Their IkeaBot can do everything by itself. As the researchers write in a paper presented this week at the 2013 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), "We believe that this paper represents the first autonomous robotic system to assemble a piece of IKEA furniture." Welcome to the future!

There are a couple things to keep in mind about the demo in the video: first of all, it’s fully autonomous, and the entire assembly takes only 10 minutes. There’s nobody driving the KUKA youBots around, and they’re deciding on their own when (or if) cooperation is necessary to achieve their goal. And second, it’s not like the robots were programmed with instructions on how to assemble an IKEA Lack table: in fact, they weren’t even shown those cryptic printed diagrams. Instead, the robots use a "geometric reasoning system" and a "symbolic planner" to figure out how a bunch of parts should be attached to one another, keeping in mind that all screw holes should be used and that no parts should be left over. This works even when the final shape is unknown: the bots just know that one thing must attach to another thing in a given way, and they keep on doing that until hey, it’s a table.

And while the software is obviously quite clever, it’s the innovative gripper that makes it possible for the robots to get the job done. Called the Torq Gripper, it uses two counter-rotating wheels joined by rubber bands to grip just about any shape with a high amount of compliant torque, and then rotate it. It’s worth mentioning that the Canadarm (the robotic arm on the International Space Station) uses a similar gripping system.

Granted, we would like to see these bots building other, more complex pieces. Say, a Bestå TV and media storage cabinet and shelving combo system. The MIT researchers say they're working on it. They want to make their system applicable to a general set of assembly tasks (though for larger pieces they might want to use a stronger KUKA). They also hope to give humans the opportunity to get more involved in the process, but seriously now, we’re totally happy to just sit this one out.

"IkeaBot: An Autonomous Multi-Robot Coordinated Furniture Assembly System," by Ross A. Knepper, Todd Layton, John Romanishin, and Daniela Rus from MIT, was presented this week at ICRA 2013 in Germany.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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