The magazine of the Melbourne PC User Group
Robotics has been of interest to mankind for over one hundred years. However
our perception of robots has been influenced by the media and Hollywood.
One may ask what robotics is about? In my eyes, a robots' characteristics change depending on the environment
it operates in. Some of these are:
Outer Space - Manipulative arms that are controlled by a human are used to unload the docking bay of
space shuttles to launch satellites or to construct a space station
The Intelligent Home - Automated systems can now monitor home security, environmental conditions and
energy usage. Door and windows can be opened automatically and appliances such as lighting and air
conditioning can be pre programmed to activate. This assists occupants irrespective of their state of
Exploration - Robots can visit environments that are harmful to humans. An example is monitoring the
environment inside a volcano or exploring our deepest oceans. NASA has used robotic probes for planetary
exploration since the early sixties.
Military Robots - Airborne robot drones are used for surveillance in today's modern army. In the
future automated aircraft and vehicles could be used to carry fuel and ammunition or clear minefields
Farms - Automated harvesters can cut and gather crops. Robotic dairies are available allowing
operators to feed and milk their cows remotely.
The Car Industry - Robotic arms that are able to perform multiple tasks are used in the car
manufacturing process. They perform tasks such as welding, cutting, lifting, sorting and bending. Similar
applications but on a smaller scale are now being planned for the food processing industry in particular the
trimming, cutting and processing of various meats such as fish, lamb, beef.
Hospitals - Under development is a robotic suit that will enable nurses to lift patients without
damaging their backs. Scientists in Japan have developed a power-assisted suit which will give nurses the
extra muscle they need to lift their patients - and avoid back injuries.
The suit was designed by Keijiro Yamamoto, a professor in the welfare-systems engineering department at
Kanagawa Institute of Technology outside Tokyo. It will allow caregivers to easily lift bed-ridden patients
on and off beds.
In its current state the suit has an aluminium exoskeleton and a tangle of wires and compressed-air lines
trailing from it. Its advantage lies in the huge impact it could have for nurses. In Japan, the population
aged 14 and under has declined 7% over the past five years to 18.3 million this year. Providing care for a
growing elderly generation poses a major challenge to the government.
Robotics may be the solution. Research institutions and companies in Japan have been trying to create robotic
nurses to substitute for humans. Yamamoto has taken another approach and has decided to create a device
designed to help human nurses.
In tests, a nurse weighing 64 kilograms was able to lift and carry a patient weighing 70 kilograms. The suit
is attached to the wearer's back with straps and belts. Sensors are placed on the wearer's muscles to measure
strength. These send the data back to a microcomputer, which calculates how much more power is needed to
complete the lift effortlessly.
The computer, in turn, powers a chain of actuators - or inflatable cuffs - that are attached to the suit and
worn under the elbows, lower back and knees. As the wearer lifts a patient, compressed air is pushed into the
cuffs, applying extra force to the arms, back and legs. The degree of air pressure is automatically adjusted
according to how much the muscles are flexed. A distinct advantage of this system is that it assists the
wearers knees, being only one of its kind to do so.
A number of hurdles are still faced by Yamamoto. The suit is unwieldy, the wearer can't climb stairs and
turning is awkward. The design weight of the suit should be less than 10 kilograms for comfortable use. The
latest prototype weighs 15 kilograms. Making it lighter is technically possible by using smaller and lighter
actuators. The prototype has cost less than ¥1 million ($8,400) to develop. But earlier versions
developed by Yamamoto over the past 10 years cost upwards of ¥20 million in government development
Disaster Areas - Surveillance robots fitted with advanced sensing and imaging equipment can operate in
hazardous environments such as urban setting damaged by earthquakes by scanning walls, floors and ceilings
for structural integrity.
Entertainment - Interactive robots that exhibit behaviours and learning ability. SONY has one such
robot which moves freely, plays with a ball and can respond to verbal instructions.
Education is integrating technologies in a creative format and robotics involves all key learning areas such
as maths, arts (i.e. materials and design), English, sciences (i.e. chemistry, physics, mechanics,
electronics) and social skills. The range of resources is great, some brand names include - Elekit,
Lynxmotion, Robotix, Lego, Fischertechnic, Logiblocs, Capsela and Cye. For more information and
great links to information visit
Reprinted from the May 2002 issue of PC Update, the
magazine of Melbourne PC User Group, Australia