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Utah-built robot safeguards the workplace

By Ed Yeates | Posted - Oct. 13, 2011 at 10:16 p.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY -- Visualize a robot that can mirror your exact movements, but with remarkable strength and dexterity.

Utah's premier robot builders have come up with yet another machine that could change the way humans work in dangerous environments.

Engineers at Raytheon-Sarcos in Salt Lake City demonstrated a unique set of tele-operated robotic arms attached to a modified Ditch Witch. With no training at all, one immediately meshes with the feelings and actions of the machine. It mirrored everything one does with their arms, wrists and shoulders.

As Vice President of Operations Fraser Smith describes, "every way you move, your three degrees of freedom in your wrist, the one in your elbow and the three in your shoulder --the slave arms can move the same way you do."

The robot translates movements with what is called "force reflection." In the hands of the machine is incredible strength and agility, depending on what is needed to fulfill the task at hand.

"Anything that slave encounters in terms of force is also fed back to the operator so he can actually feel what's happening in the workspace," said Smith. "With added strength, the operator doesn't need two or three guys trying to muscle something around. This thing just picks it up and dexterously positions the material."


With added strength, the operator doesn't need two or three guys trying to muscle something around. This thing just picks it up and dexterously positions the material.

–Fraser Smith


Tele-operating sophisticated robots is not new to Raytheon-Sarcos. Sarcos engineers have been researching these systems for years.

In fact, KSL was on site in 2007 to watch a demo of what is called the Exoskelton. It too mirrored the movements of its human operator, but in this case, he was actually encased in the innards of the machine. As KSL reported then, the Exoskeleton someday might give a soldier more protection, strength and endurance while in combat.

And robots continue to capture our imagination. The new movie "Real Steel," now in theatres, dramatizes how humans train a machine to fight like a boxer in the ring. Smith said while teaching it so it remembers is not quite here, the technology for tele-operating such a robot is already available.

In the real world though, engineers see these kind of robots not as entertainers but as helpmates in the workplace to keep humans out of harm's way.

Imagine assembling heavy pipe to pull radioactive water away from a damaged nuclear power plant. According to Smith, "things like Fukishima or Three Mile Island or Chernobyl are pretty inviting for these machines. There's simply no reason to put people at risk cleaning up these disasters."

The robotic arms can be built to stretch at any length and if needed, the human could operate the machine away from the hazardous site remotely.

Utah-built robot safeguards the workplace

"Those same controls used by the operator on-site could be taken off the machine and located in a room five miles away," Smith said. "The person would then be replaced by cameras and microphones that would provide stereo vision and stereo hearing."

In place of magnet hands to move tons of steel, robotic fingers could do delicate work with tiny materials.

Versatility is what this technology is all about. In any heavy application, on or off the robot's platform, human strength would no longer be required as a prerequisite for the job. Man or woman could work an eight hour day muscling heavy stuff, and never come home exhausted.

"This opens a lot of jobs to women that otherwise would be closed just based on strength issues. It's a real equalizer," Smith said.

The Raytheon-Sarcos prototype apparently put on quite a show before an enthusiastic gathering of workers during a recent demo at the Newport News Shipyard in Virginia.

Email: eyeates@ksl.com.

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Ed Yeates

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