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Seiko Epson Shows Off Its Dual-Arm Robot

It's smart, adaptable, and looks like E.T.

2 min read
Seiko Epson dual-arm robot
Photo: Seiko Epson

Often equipped with two arms, strange hands, and even stranger-looking heads, a new breed of jack-of-all-trades industrial robot could change the face of automation. And the place to see the latest examples of these dual-arm manufacturing machines was the International Robot Exhibition (IREX) in Tokyo earlier this month.

We're putting together an in-depth article and video on the dual-arm, adaptable industrial robots we saw at IREX. But today we're going to focus on one of them, because that's a new robot we've never covered before.

It's a new prototype from Japanese electronics company Seiko Epson. The robot doesn't have a name yet (the company calls it simply "autonomous dual-arm robot"), but we can't help noticing that it looks like E.T. Epson plans to market it by early 2016.

Epson is no stranger to industrial manufacturing robots, boasting the lion's share of global SCARA robot sales (one model pictured below). However, specialized industrial robots aren't easily assigned new jobs, since they're often carefully integrated into permanent positions in the production line. In the past, the main solution has been manual labor. The new generation of adaptable robots could change that with a combination of sensing, delicate manipulation, and the ability to learn new tasks more easily.

Seiko Epson SCARA robot

"In the future, a commercial version of this autonomous dual-arm robot will make it possible to easily automate a wide range of tasks that previously had to be performed by hand," said Hideo Hirao, chief operating officer of Epson's industrial solutions division. The robot could be moved from one end of a production line, where it assembles goods, to the other end where it picks up and places objects into packages, he added.

Epson provides some more details in a press release:

"Epson's autonomous dual-arm robot is able to accurately recognize the position and orientation of objects in three-dimensional space. The two robot arms are equipped with newly developed force sensors that give the robot human-like control over the force exerted by the arms, enabling the robots to transport and assemble objects without damaging them. A multipurpose end effector can grasp, clamp, and insert objects of various shapes and sizes. The robot can be made to perform a wide range of tasks simply by teaching it objects and task scenarios."

If all that sounds like what we've heard about other robots like Rethink Robotics' Baxter, ABB's Frida, or Kawada Industries' Nextage, it's no coincidence. That's definitely one of the hottest trends in industrial robotics. However, there remains the rather important issue of price, which Epson is not yet ready to disclose. If the company's dual-arm robot has a competitive price, Epson—already a big player in the SCARA market—is in a strong position to enter this new era of manufacturing automation.

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
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

“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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