Bendy robot arm-twisted into shape with help of augmented reality

A new study out of the University of Bristol has found that an augmented reality simulator could be the key to helping robotic engineers to bend metal parts, such as robotic arms, into specific shapes, without actually having to physically manipulate the metal themselves.

The system, which was tested with a custom-built robotic arm and has been developed over several years, works by overlaying virtual copies of the metal parts on top of the physical robot itself using augmented reality technology.

First attempt

Bendy robots could be soon doing their chores around the house or cleaning up nuclear disaster sites, thanks to a new robotic arm that can change its structure using low-power lights. The new technology could prove useful in several situations including the health care and repair industry, where robots must flexibly fit in tight places.

The paper which researchers will present at International Conference on Robotics and Automation later in June shows how they developed a robotic arm that can change its shape from an open (parallel) configuration to a closed (perpendicular) configuration without requiring any intermediate steps, according to IEEE Spectrum.

Researchers used an LED light for stimulating photopolymer resin rods around it bending along parabolic curves before applying pressure on them.

Second try

So how does it work? Once you’ve settled on a design for your robot, you can take that design and print it out onto a material called cardstock. The idea is that by printing out your design onto physical paper, you are bringing all your ideas and intentions to life. A small camera on one end of an iPad reads what’s printed on these pieces of paper to give depth to 3D objects in space.

This camera sends information about its surroundings over WiFi to be processed by software and turned into data. The app (built by Asher Vollmer) can then use these numbers to display a virtual version of whatever is in front of it.

That way, if you want to move around a chair or table in real life, your robot will automatically turn itself around as well. In other words: It uses augmented reality to provide feedback for physical objects. It’s no surprise that people who create robots want them to see them.

What’s not often discussed is why we need to see them as well. Seeing makes us feel something; seeing creates empathy; seeing leads us down paths we might not have gone before; seeing creates possibilities; seeing creates change; seeing creates understanding; and sometimes, when we see things differently than they look now, seeing makes those things better—more connected or personal or just right.

Third time lucky

The creators of a three-jointed robotic arm from Bristol’s Cabot Institute have revealed how they manipulated its form to allow it to be flexible and easily adaptable. The 3D-printed arm, BendyBot, can be customized in any way and is designed to mimic human movement in extreme environments.

The team said their creation had been inspired by nature – using biological processes to come up with new ways of doing things. The inspiration for our work came from nature, explained Dr. Roderich Gross from the Queen Mary University of London, who worked on BendyBot along with Dr. Jonathan Rossiter from Cabot Institute at UWE Bristol.

Fourth attempt

The real process showed a bendy robotic arm twisted into shape in real-time. Weighing 35 kilograms, it was twisted and shaped by hand. The impressive video was taken using Apple’s ARKit and rendered using Epic Games Unreal Engine 4 (the same software that powers Fortnite), resulting in a true representation of what is happening as if someone were bending and twisting your robotic arms.

However, unlike when you pull an arm out of its socket, there was no agony involved during filming; instead, all efforts are focused on helping build new ways to get these deformable robots better acquainted with our physical world. In the meantime, let’s just hope for human safety…it doesn’t look fun!

Final result

The nifty, Bendy robotic arm was put through its paces in a collaborative project by researchers at Imperial College London, University College London, and ETH Zurich. The arms, which come in either red or black, have six joints that can be bent and twisted in any direction using just a magnetic screwdriver – simply apply some torque to each joint and it’ll stay in place.

Each of these joints is connected to a series of rubber bands that can be manipulated by gently pulling them into different positions. As you might imagine, after bending, twisting, and tying up multiple rubber bands for hours on end, over years of research, you’re going to end up with what looks like a real mess.

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