A few years ago I watched the DARPA challenge. If you’re not familiar with the challenge, the idea was to build a robot that could drive a car, climb a ladder, turn a handle, use a drill and various other activities. In the challenge each robot was given an hour to complete the tasks. It was a slow process. I had two reasons to watch, one, Kollmorgen has some frameless motors in the Carnegie Mellon robot and two, I’m a Virginia Tech graduate and they also provided a robot. What struck me as interesting was reading the responses in the social media feeds. They ranged from “this is boring” and “I for one welcome our robot overlords,” to “What is this? I’ve seen robots that can do this stuff easily. These things keep falling over.” There were a lot of comments about how, in the general publics' eye these machines moved slow, they weren’t steady, and they appeared to do some rudimentary things like climbing a ladder. I mean a 2 year-old can climb a ladder. And it was in reading these comments that I realized, that the general public thinks the world is further along in robotic technology than it actually is.
There were some amazing things that came out of the DARPA challenge. CHIMP, the Carnegie Mellon robot was the only one in the first round to use a battery pack. The rest of the challengers had cable tethers. The significance of this is that all the electricity used in the CHIMP robot was contained in the battery pack and delivering the electricity for the motors in the joints and other operating uses. Hollywood robot stories make this seem like it’s been available for years, but the technology is just now coming along to provide torque for lifting heavy objects and move legs in a small package. Whether it is a robot that takes on the work to save the human (CHIMP) or the robot that can assist the human worker in their workstation, we are getting closer to Hollywood's vision. As this technology opens up and accelerates its run to the market, the changes we see include small articulated robots (robotic arms) and collaborative robots (cobots) that can work side by side with humans.
In years past, large articulated robots were these large things placed behind heavy duty fencing to keep from hurting the people in the factory. Now, these robotic arms can be as small as a tall desk lamp and sit next to its human counterpart. But it can’t be behind a safety fence and still sit with its human friend at their workstation. Whether an articulated robot or a different design, these robots can still be very powerful, but if you put it with a human, it can’t hurt the human. So, no burning the human, no bruising the human, no pulling the human’s hair. We’re still a long way from the ancient world of Star Wars, but the idea that we will be sitting in a bar with a robot passing us a drink is arriving. We’re on the cusp of this explosion. Europe already has manufacturers bringing these small industrial robots, China is also taking their stab at development and the US is also ramping up competition in the manufacturing of similar and newer designs of the small and lightweight robots. So how about you? Are you ready for people interacting with robots?