Robots have job potential
Reza Fotouhi has no trouble imaging the age of the robot, when mobile machines with flexible appendages handle the jobs humans cannot, should not, or prefer not to do, both here on Earth and in space. It’s not hard for him to imagine because he sees it every day.
In the mechanical engineering professor’s lab, two mobile robots sit quietly on the floor in one corner. On a workbench is a set of new flexible manipulators that can be programmed to perform very specific tasks not unlike those commonly done by automated machinery in car manufacturing facilities. By combining the manipulators with a mobile platform, Fotouhi foresees applications ranging from mining to agriculture to health care, “but we have to go step by step.”
The flexible manipulators are Fotouhi’s latest acquisition. Because the mechanisms are exposed, it is easy for Fotouhi to point out their unique features – springs that allow the joints to move in a number of directions, and flexible links between the joints. Conventional manipulators like the Canadarm on the space shuttle or even the human arm are rigid between the joints, making them durable but also heavy, said Fotouhi.
By comparison, the geometry of flexible manipulators make them lightweight, smooth operating mechanisms that requires small motors. This new technology is not, he added, without its challenges. Fotouhi and his three graduate students are working to develop a control system to govern the manipulator’s operation, and to suppress vibration.
Hand in hand with the manipulator research is Fotouhi’s interest in mobile robotics, particularly in systems of pattern recognition that will allow robots to identify and avoid both stationary and moving objects. He imagines such robots being able to play critical roles in hazardous environments like mines, or in hospital isolation wards where human contact with patients can be limited by using robots for tasks like meal delivery.
One unique application for the technology is in agriculture where Fotouhi imagines a robot equipped with manipulators and programmed to move through a field, recognize and then pick weeds.
The advantages of using robot technology over human power in all these applications are many, said Fotouhi. In addition to being immune to disease and environmental hazards, “robots don’t complain,” he joked. “They’re not unionized and all they need is a battery and good maintenance.”