EUREKA JUNE 2002 COVER FEATURE STORY

Robotics get the human touch

A low cost, multi-axis robot that mirrors the actions of a human limb could prove invaluable to the disabled. Tom Shelley reports

The star of, and the only non-Japanese exhibitor at, the 'Robot Dream Exposition', part of Robodex 2002 in Yokahama, was a low cost robot designed and built in Britain.

The arm-like robot, which imitates all the movements of its human equivalent, uses more than 40 pneumatic 'muscles' to produce 29 individual axis movements. Its control system is based on low-cost automotive CANbus electronics and a free version of Linux.
Among its predecessors is a completely human-like walking robot, and a very low cost and safe-to- use physiotherapy aid for home use; the development of which is currently stalled by the lack of a suitable compressor.
The Shadow Robot Company, based in North London, is a small company of robot enthusiasts. The company has earned a world-wide reputation for tackling ambitious robotics projects on very limited budgets; projects some of which larger companies would not even attempt.
The team's latest development is a fully articulated hand and arm. It started out as a DTI SMART Award supported project and has since attracted 50,000 from the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA) - the objective being to turn it into a commercial product.
Movement is achieved by inflating rubber tubes enclosed by polymer net bags, in a way described in a past issue of Eureka. These are about the cheapest actuators that one can devise.

The arm's design is such that, for example, 24 axis of movement are available for fingers, thumb and wrist, plus five more from the shoulder. The forearm section has 35 separate actuator muscles, some of which oppose each other while others are opposed by springs.
The hand and arm is usually demonstrated by running pre-programmed scripts. An alternative method is also available which uses direct instructions fed to the arm via a commercially available cyber glove.
For use by the disabled, the team intends to combine the data glove input with voice control and "a few pushbuttons". It is intended to program in most operations on a teach-and-learn basis and then make these available as 'canned cycles'.
Part of the development programme involves working with disabled people to develop solutions for different needs. And a target task is that the machine should be able to collect a glass of water - a complicated task given that even picking up a glass or a cup dictates the need to accommodate various shapes with differing handles of different sizes.
Positional feedback from the fingers is by Hall effect rotary sensors, each of which detects the angular position of a ring magnet from changes in magnetic flux density and direction. Wiring is simplified by using a four-wire CANbus to take data to and from the palm of the hand. Surface mount electronics reduce size, and Real Time Linux simplifies programming.
It is hoped to have a working prototype of a commercial version finished within a year and to begin production within the next five years. Other applications for the arm and hand are seen in tele-operation with hazardous substances, robotic handling of soft and varying objects and animatronics.
Open movement
The software will be open so that anyone can devise add-ons and enhancements. At this stage, it is envisaged that the supporting machinery for the arm will drive itself around on wheels and not walk, even though walking robots are a Shadow Robot Company speciality.
However, as Shadow's Richard Greenhill points out: "Bipedal walking is hard." Which is why most successful walking robots known to Eureka have four, six or even eight legs.
Nonetheless, Eureka was shown a small, two- legged walking robot demonstrator just under a metre tall. Also powered by air muscles, it has reached the point where it can move with help, rather like a toddler learning to walk. It seems the machine balances itself by sensing pressure variations under its feet rather than by using a level sensor to detect vertical orientation
Human-like robots, as envisaged by science fiction writers, may well be the ultimate future, but simpler machines based on the same technologies undoubtedly have more immediate commercial promise.
One of these is a machine for exercising human joints with a view to gradually increasing their range of movement. Stiffening joints may result from old age, an accident or multiple sclerosis. Treatment requires the attentions of a qualified physiotherapist and/or the use of a Continuous Passive Motion machine. This is a fairly large and expensive piece of equipment, which is normally available only in a hospital and still requires the attention of a skilled operator.
What is needed is something cheap enough for home use, capable of being re-programmed from time to time and, above all, 100% safe.
The Shadow Robot Company undertook a feasibility study in conjunction with the Centre for Disability Research, part of University College, London, based at Stanmore Hospital. The study was to decide whether such a machine could be built with Shadow's technology. The machine has since been developed to the point where it can be trialled, with further interest now being shown by a German research institute.
The main barrier to implementation at the present time, surprisingly, is the inability to source suitable compressors. Greenhill says he is looking for machines which are both cheap and quiet, delivering up to 30litres/min of air at up to 3 bar. Anyone who has such a product should get in touch with him at rgreenhill@shadow.org.uk.
Greenhill claims that Shadow Robot also has technologies suitable for machines operating in space, at gas pressures a few bar greater than vacuum and undersea. And, by the way, the ironing robot featured on the television programme 'Tomorrow's World' shown on Millennium Eve was made by Shadow Robot at just three weeks notice. (More information at www.shadow.org.uk and www.nesta.org.uk )

* Relatively low cost robot arm/hand has 29 individual axis movements

* Cost effectiveness comes from use of low cost pneumatic 'muscle' actuators, CANbus and Real Time Linux

* Technology is immediately applicable to medical systems, tele-operation and animatronics

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