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Sensing the future: humanoid robots

20 June 2013

Last year, the Robot Studio decided to make a statement in the world of humanoid robotics when they aspired to replicate the form and function of arguably the most precise, versatile, and complex mechanical system to exist: the human shoulder, arm and hand.

Futek's LSB200 Super Miniature load sensor
Futek's LSB200 Super Miniature load sensor

It is a late night at the office and you are on the cusp of a breakthrough. As your design approaches perfection, your focus tightens and you tune out the familiar hum of Rosie, a janitorial robot you developed that is diligently minding her evening chores in the next room.

Your concentration is broken when your monitor goes blank and a matrix of random characters slowly starts to populate the screen. A slight anxiety builds as you mentally account for the data you fear losing.

The overhead lights dim and a stark silence is filled with a growing chorus of car alarms and tornado sirens in the distance. All of this is a bit unsettling; something here just does not seem right.

From nowhere, Rosie smashes the door down with such power that you are thrown from your chair to the floor. Disoriented, you hear the sound of actuators dilating her chest-plate and look up to see a laser aligned with your forehead. Her once friendly eyes glow hateful red and she has a menacing scowl on her face. “Hold on, now why did I design my robotic cleaning lady to have a face?”

Perhaps this should not be the ultimate concern of the first casualty in the robot uprising. But, practically speaking, this is a legitimate question. While robots can utilize information that - in their sentient creators - is acquired through a face, there really is no practical need for a face itself.

This design accent enjoys popularity because of a curious gimmick that was evolutionarily hardwired into mankind: When the human mind identifies a pattern that matches the template of a face, there is reflexive expectation of intelligence behind it. And this is the primary allure behind humanoid robotics; authentic personification sparks an irresistible human interest with these creations.

But, modern society has become familiar enough with technology that robots must go beyond just a superficial likeness to impress. What separates an authentic humanoid robot from a banal doll (besides being a way more exciting Christmas present) is that its anthropomorphism is expressed through its material composition, geometric proportions, mechanical operations, autonomy and actions.

Although the tasks of everyday life are often taken for granted, reverse engineering a biomimetic man that can autonomously execute one is an extraordinary challenge. Consider that the “product literature” for the human motor control system would include: a SOTA 100THz quantum processor; 72km network of flexible, lightning fast peripheral cabling; and an array of high precision micro-scale mechanical sensors. This formative challenge is specifically what the roboticists at the Robot Studio look forward to every day.

A humanoid robot created by Robot Studio
A humanoid robot created by Robot Studio

Last year, the Robot Studio decided to make a statement in the world of humanoid robotics when they aspired to replicate the form and function of arguably the most precise, versatile, and complex mechanical system to exist: the human forelimb consisting shoulder, arm, and hand.

The mechanical structure was constructed to emulate the material properties and geometry of human bones, joints, and connective tissue with unprecedented detail and authenticity. Google supplied funds fuelling the start-up company Willow Garage to develop specialized control software, elegantly termed “ROS”. And maxon motors were implemented to faithfully execute the orders of ROS.

But, for these refined feedback loops to breathe autonomy into the creation, they would need to be properly fed. The Robot Studio knew that, just like in the human body, the mechanical loads at play would need to be monitored with great sensitivity and quickness; they theorized this could be achieved by employing force sensor technology.

But there were a couple caveats: these sensors would need to be designed to safely withstand incidental loads that exceeded the magnitude of forces they were designed to accurately monitor; and, to meet the spatial constrictions of this human form, their performance would need to be packaged into an impossibly small size.

Faced with a measurement challenge that fell somewhere between exotic and impossible, the Robot Studio reached out to Futek Advanced Sensor Technology, Inc. Since Futek had reputably pioneered sensor designs for applications ranging from deep sea to outer space, they expected the Futek engineering team would bring their own cutting-edge technologies to the table. They did not expect this futuristic sensor they sought would be in stock and ready for shipment: the LSB200 Super Miniature load sensor.

Out of the box, the overachieving performance specifications of the LSB200 more than fit the bill. An impressive 0.05% of scale non-linearity comfortably can satisfy the most aggressive performance tolerances. A 1000% safe overload rating allows the LSB200 to survive forces up to ten times its calibrated range.

And with all the precision and reliability of strain-based sensor technology packed into a geometric volume of roughly 2mL, the spatial displacement of the LSB200 seems more like a typographical error than reality. With the successful integration of the Futek LSB200 sensors, this groundbreaking prototype now serves as a platform for The Robot Studio’s next exploration: a biomimetic human torso.

Futek products are available exclusively in the UK from Limited.

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