Smarter, safer, modular robots

23 June 2019

Robot-arm

Human interacting with robot arm

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Modular robots that assemble like Lego promise to be safer, cheaper and more efficient, say their creators...

Robots are increasingly replacing people to do repetitive tasks in industry and agriculture. Yet, in the UK alone, 13000 injuries and 60 deaths were caused by accidents due to contact with machinery in 2014-18 . So could modular robots help?

These work a bit like Lego building blocks. They are made of different components that can be put together in a variety of ways for different purposes, from building cars to picking fruit.

These new robots are also “smart”, and have sensors to detect when people are around. Even when they’ve been reconfigured into a new shape, they know to stop near any humans. This means that there is a significantly lower chance of a collision or an accident.

Although available since the 1980s, these have never caught on in industry, since, every time you change the configuration, you have to do a lot of re-programming to set it up to work properly again.

“Today, in the automotive industry, if a robot breaks down, then they have to completely replace this robot,” says Matthias Althoff, from the Technische Universität München in Germany. Because of this, standard robots can be expensive and inefficient.

Now, Althoff and his colleagues have developed modular robots that can be taken apart and reassembled, but don’t need to be reprogrammed for their new task.

They have designed an array of parts which can be put together to make a robot about the size of your arm. This saves a lot of time and human work, as the robot is ready to go straight away. Another advantage is that if a part of the robot breaks, it is possible to easily replace that one part.

Current technology requires a large stopping distance for the robot for safety considerations. This means that when it is working near a human, it stops frequently to avoid a collision.These stops are considered “idle time”, when the robots are unable to work, which dents productivity.

But the new modular robots can safely stop much closer to humans, meaning that they have to stop less often, reducing their idle time by 36% yet without compromising safety.

Acording to Althoff, “the robot still works very naturally with the human, and the human gets a lot of confidence working with the robot because it will always stop before it is touched.”

So when will we see them in use? The researchers have launched a start-up called Modular Robotics and plan to release their first products in 2020. These are versatile and can be put together in a variety of ways to serve different purposes.

Althoff describes it as “going to a clothing store. We have an S, M, L, and XL module right now, and we have a lot of different link modules to put them together and just let your creativity flow. There are no limits, you can build any kind of robot you want!”

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