The magazine of the Melbourne PC User Group

Robotics Applications
Kevin Taylor

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 mobility.

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 grants.

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 http://www.robotics.com.au.

Reprinted from the May 2002 issue of PC Update, the magazine of Melbourne PC User Group, Australia

[About Melbourne PC User Group]