How hard is a robot?

Earlier this month Ocado Technology and a consortium of academic institutes announced Armar-6, the culmination of the five years EU-funded SecondHands project.

The premise behind the project was to develop a robot that could work alongside people. Such a robot is very different to the industrial robots used in car production lines. These machines are hard and metallic, and designed to perform one very specific task, such as spot-welding body panels or painting. The industrial robot “knows” its environment, the task it has to complete and has a schematic of the object it is required to work with.

Ocado Technology saw an opportunity to work with the researchers on how a robot could be built to help its technicians perform daily maintenance tasks on the machinery in its automated warehouse facilities.

Soft manipulation

Walk into an industrial robot and it hurts. If it hits you – even by mistake – you will probably end up in hospital. Now imagine the complexity of making mechatronics with steel arms and motorised joints that won’t injure someone. As Graham Deacon, a robotics research fellow at Ocado Technology, explains, Armar-6 provides soft manipulation, which, as well as being gentle, means the hand is pliable and can adapt to the shape of the object it needs to pick up.

He says that one of the test tasks was to see how it would cope with helping a technical lift a panel and place it on the floor. It is a task humans seem to do without thinking, especially those who are prone to dropping things. But for a machine – especially one that needs to sense what the human holding the other end of the object is doing – putting a panel on the floor involves a very carefully programmed series of decisions. Floors generally do not move, but people do, and the object needs to be gripped such that it does not slip. However, the grip must also be gentle enough to prevent damage.

Besides the popularity of rogue robots on Netflix, the utopian society depicted by sci-fi writers often presents a world where these machines interact seamlessly with the society they inhabit. What Armar-6 shows is that while this may be possible one day, there are huge technical hurdles that need to be overcome before people and robots can collaborate and live side-by-side.

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