Robots and Their Killer Moves

July 17, 2015
With so much fuss lately about killer robots, it might be time to just shut up and dance.

Robots may not be killers, but they sure have killer dance moves. Or at least killer dance parties.

The Robot Block Party is on at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) in Chicago this weekend, giving visitors a chance to “do the robot” at the dance party both Saturday and Sunday, not to mention interacting with Murata Boy and a snake robot, and designing their own robots. It’s all part of the Robot Revolution exhibit that’s on temporary display at the museum.

I took my kids to see the special exhibit recently—not only to see the robots doing fun things like playing soccer, dealing cards or climbing walls, but to get a better understanding of where and how robots fit into our lives and industries.

Humans always seem to have a fascination with robots, imagining them created in our likeness, available to answer our every beck and call—that is, until they turn evil and take over the world, killing us all or making us their slaves. Just kidding…maybe…of course I’m kidding!

Frankly, I never get tired of seeing what robots can do. Like the huge robotic arms that lift train axle and wheel assemblies like they’re dumbbells. Or the little delta robots that sort pills at lightning speeds. Some of what MSI has on exhibit are no different than those robots we all see at industrial tradeshows. But there are also a lot of forward-thinking technologies that can really make you think about the possibilities that lie ahead.

MSI developed the Robot Revolution exhibit with a team of expert advisors, including Henrik I. Christensen, KUKA chair of robotics at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Computing and executive director of the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines; and Dennis Hong, professor and founding director of the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) in UCLA’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department.

The exhibit, which will tour nationally after it completes its run in Chicago Jan. 3, is divided into four areas to showcase various aspects of robotics: cooperation, smarts, skills and locomotion.

The cooperation area showcases traits that make robots better able to work effectively with humans—mimicking facial expressions with facial-coding technology, providing therapy with sensors that respond to touch, or cooperating with each other to play soccer. Some work needs to be done on that last point, though. Although they pass the ball effectively to compete in the Robo World Cup, they have yet to master the tortured flop and pained grimace that is essential in professional soccer.

The skills area contains the robots that are most familiar to those in industry—for example, a Fanuc delta robot that shows off advances in machine vision and robotic precision for high-speed picking and assembly, and small part handling. In this case, it’s sorting pills into three different bottles with speeds impressing even my jaded teens. A Yaskawa/Motoman two-armed robot takes a break from the assembly line to deal out cards for Blackjack.

As we know in industry, humans are becoming more comfortable with the idea of working side by side with robots like Baxter, which is also on display in the skills area. Rather than helping to assemble parts, though, he’s playing Tic-Tac-Toe, teaching people the sorts of intelligence and dexterity he has, but also showing them that it’s safe to be right up close to him while he works.

While we were there, though, Baxter was feeling a little under the weather. Not great for kids wanting to take him on in a game of X’s and O’s, but still not a bad chance to watch a technician dig into the underlying circuitry and explain ladder logic to an interested bystander. It was also a chance to direct visitors to the RoboGarage, where they could see employees tinkering with broken down robots.

The locomotion area lets visitors explore the different ways that robots can move, in many cases giving them access to places we can’t get (or shouldn’t get). The Japanese Topy OSCAR (Optical Stair Climbing Advanced Robot), built like a miniature tractor, can go into unstable buildings or other hazardous locations. Robots similar to this one investigated radiation leaks after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.

People often envision robots walking like humans, like C3PO in Star Wars, but that’s easier said than done—standing, balancing and working with two legs being complex for a machine. CHARLI (Cognitive Humanoid Autonomous Robot with Learning Intelligence), developed at Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, is an attempt to achieve that and to create a robot that humans feel comfortable with.

DROP (Durable Reconnaissance and Observation Platform), developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), uses its “microspines” to scale concrete walls. It can be dropped from a drone or helicopter into dangerous locations to get a better look. The tiny hooks can grip wood, concrete or stucco.

There are all kinds of robotic grippers on display, with some impressive advances shown to mimic the capabilities of human hands.

Schunk’s LWA Powerball arm includes a three-finger hand with advanced gripping systems with seven degrees of freedom. The Schunk five-finger hand mimics a human hand with nine motors, 20 joints and elastic fingertips.

Festo’s demonstration looks beyond humans, showing off its work in biomimicry—using the structure and skills evolved over millions of years in animals and plants to find creative ways to design robots. I’ve seen their work before, birds flying or jellyfish undulating around tradeshows. This time, they’re showing the LearningGripper, inspired by the strength and flexibility of an elephant’s trunk.

Its 11 degrees of freedom let it move in a non-linear fashion. The flexible polyamide structure makes it hazard-free; in the event of a collision with a human, the system immediately yields. The polymer-based bellows gripper also lets it handle fragile objects.

There’s a whole lot more to see at the exhibit. In some cases, it was fun to explain to my kids some of the robotic uses that are already going on in industry (whether they care or not). In other cases, it’s fascinating to think about how some of the new advances might be applied in the future.

If you’re in the Chicago area, I encourage you to go check out Robot Revolution. If you’re not in Chicago…well…why not?

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