Researchers at Imperial College London have designed a flexible robotic arm that can be guided into shape by a person using augmented reality (AR) goggles.
The arm can twist and turn in all directions, making it readily customisable for a wide range of potential applications in manufacturing, car, truck and spacecraft maintenance, and even injury rehabilitation.
The versatile arm is readily bendable into a wide variety of shapes thanks to its slippery layers of mylar sheets inside, which slide over one another and can lock into place. In practice, people working alongside the robot would manually bend the arm into the precise shape needed for each task, but configuring the robot into specific shapes without guidance has proven to be difficult for users.
To enhance the robot’s user-friendliness, researchers at Imperial’s REDS (Robotic manipulation: Engineering, Design and Science) lab designed a system via which users can see in AR how to configure the robot. Wearing mixed-reality smart glasses and through motion-tracking cameras, users see templates and designs in front of them superimposed onto their real-world environment. They then adjust the robotic arm until it matches the template, which turns green on successful configuration so that the robot can be locked into place.
‘One of the key issues in adjusting these robots is accuracy in their new position. We humans aren’t great at making sure the new position matches the template, which is why we looked to AR for help, said Nicolas Rojas of Imperial’s Dyson School of Design Engineering. ‘We’ve shown that AR can simplify working alongside our malleable robot. The approach gives users a range of easy-to-create robot positions, for all sorts of applications, without needing so much technical expertise.’
The researchers tested the system on five male subjects aged 20–26 with experience in robotics but no experience with manipulating malleable robots specifically, who were all able to adjust the robot accurately.
Because the arm is lightweight, it could also be used on spacecraft, where every gram counts. It’s also gentle enough that it could be used in injury rehabilitation, helping a patient perform an exercise while their physiotherapist performs another.
‘In many ways, it can be seen as a detached, bendier third arm,’ said PhD researchers Alex Ranne and Angus Clark from the Department of Computing and Dyson School of Design Engineering respectively. ‘It could help in many situations where an extra limb might come in handy and help to spread the workload.’
The researchers are still working to perfect both the robot and its AR component. They are now looking into introducing touch and audio elements to the AR in order to boost its accuracy in configuring the robot. They are also looking at ways to strengthen the robots. Although their flexibility and softness make them easier to configure and perhaps safer for working alongside humans, they are less rigid while in the locked position, which could affect precision and accuracy.
The results have been published in IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine.