How are robots impacting our lives today?

Many of us probably know about robots from movies or the television. In science fiction, they range from the Terminator-style, virtually indistinguishable from human killing machines, to the rather cute R2-D2 from the Star Wars franchise. But the reality of robots always seems a little less exciting. The evening news often shows robots working in automotive factories, large lumbering arms with sparks flying everywhere as they weld together parts.

The reality is that there are wide range of robots already in use across many industries, helping us on a daily basis. Manufacturing is one area where automation plays a significant role. Machines don’t need to take breaks, they can accurately perform repetitive tasks that humans find dull, and are unlikely to introduce contaminants into the materials they are processing. This is especially important in the food processing and pharmaceutical industries.

Such industrial robots take many forms. Robot arms, known as articulated robots, can have as many as 10 rotary joints, allowing them to perform complex movements to access around, and inside, the objects on which they are working. The arms themselves are normally universal, with the ability to attach a range of different tools to their wrist. Tools include welders, grippers to pick up and move objects, and even spray heads to paint and coat surfaces.

In the field of medicine, robots are being trialled to complement and even, for some types of surgery, replace the surgeon altogether. The CyberKnife is a robotic radiosurgery system that is used in the treatment of benign and malignant tumours. It features a small linear particle accelerator affixed to an articulated arm. An X-ray camera helps with positioning. The goal is to provide precise amounts of radiotherapy at the locations required, with the robot arm making it possible to apply the dose from any location around the body.

Hospitals are also starting to trial robots that handle the dispensing of medicines to patients. This leads to fewer mistakes, a faster dispensary and fewer cases of cross-contamination. Trials are also ongoing with cleaning robots to disinfect hospital wards and patient’s rooms. This is of special interest for areas handling infectious diseases and contagions. Rather than using chemicals, the cleaning robots use ultraviolet light, allowing an entire room to be cleaned in just a few minutes.

In the UK town of Milton Keynes, delivery robots are being trialled for the delivery of food and parcels. The six-wheeled autonomously guided vehicles (AGV) can transport up to 10kg and feature a range of sensors, radar and GPS to help them safely reach their destination. Developed by Starship Robots, the vehicles managed to overcome the UK’s snowy weather to successfully complete takeaway deliveries while other business’ delivery drivers were stuck in traffic. Upon arrival, the customer receives a pin-code by SMS, allowing them to retrieve their purchase from inside the vehicle.

Our emergency services and military are also supported by robots in extreme situations. Devices such as the Dragon Runner, a twin-tracked and highly manoeuvrable robot, can be used to investigate bombs and other suspicious items. Fitted with a camera and tools, it can provide insights into such dangers, cut wires and even plant small charges to disrupt devices. Forth Engineering recently demonstrated a hydraulic, spider-like robot, designed for use in nuclear plants such as the Sellafield facility. Such robots can enter environments unsuitable for humans, undertaking complex clear-up operations and decommissioning tasks.

For those wanting to get a feel for what is possible there are plenty of robotics kits available. Based around the popular Arduino development environment and tools, the Braccio Robot Arm from Tinkerkit is an articulated arm with gripper. Its six servo motors connect to an Arduino compatible shield for easy development.

If you’d like to learn more about robotics, download Distrelec’s “A Guide to Robotics and Automation”. Or, if you’d like to experiment with your own robot, just search for “robot” on the Distrelec website.