Currently, across the globe, the field of robotics is becoming one of the most sought after technologies to help combat the spread of COVID-19. Health professionals are quickly finding robotic aides invaluable in helping to reduce contamination by minimizing human-to-human contact. One such example of this is Spot, a commercially available robot developed by Boston Dynamics
Spot can be currently be seen helping the medical staff in Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts by interviewing patients believed to have COVID-19. These canine-shaped robots can freely move about and are fitted with iPads used to allow the patients to remotely communicate with physicians. This is just one use case of robotic assistance, however, the medical field isn't the only on which robotics have had an impact.
The fluid power industry has remained essential throughout this crisis due to its application in many other industries. Unfortunately, due to remote work requirements and reduction of human contact, many manufacturers and engineers are facing growing challenges with keeping up with demand. As such, they are employing the use robotics more and more as one method to help solve this problem.
In this article we will explore some great examples of robotics in the fluid power field. We will look at some current and upcoming technologies that may very well change the way that we look at fluid power in the coming years.
Boston Dynamics Hydraulic Robot
As a leader in the field of robotic research and development, Boston Dynamics, has also developed a dynamic humanoid robot, called Atlas, that features one of the world's most compact mobile hydraulic systems.
Atlas can run, jump, spin and even perform somersaults among many other of its tricks. This is achieved by a combination of electric motors and 28 hydraulic joints in conjunction with sensors that help it navigate and stay balanced. Atlas was designed as a research platform used to demonstrate human-like agility, but further development could lead to very interesting use case scenarios. Surveying in harsh environments for instance, where rough terrain may not be suitable for humans, could be easily achievable through this technology.
Within the last year alone, Boston Dynamics has also entered into warehousing assistance by debuting their HANDLE and PICK robots. Both of these robots were designed primarily for warehouse work - HANDLE, designed for moving boxes and PICK, a deep-learning vision processing solution for de-palletizing mixed SKU pallets.
While Boston Dynamics has always been known for its contributions to research and development, it will be interesting to see the impact that they have stepping outside of the lab.
The Robotic Hydraulic Arm
While the technology is not necessarily new, it may be one of the best examples of the current uses of robotics in the fluid power world. The first programmable hydraulic arm was invented in 1954 by George Devol and set the stage for our current model of hydraulic-powered robotic arms that we see used in manufacturing plants all over the world.
Tesla stands as one of the best modern examples of this. Currently, Tesla's production factory in Fremont, California employs more than 160 robots, including 10 of the largest robots in the world! The robots tasks range from warehouse transportation and assembly work to painting and welding. In fact, their hydraulic press lines can stamp up to 5000 vehicles per day! While plenty of specialist robots help create these vehicles by focusing on individual needs of the manufacturing process, the robotic arms are capable of multiple tasks involved in assembly. For instance, as soon as the sub-assemblies are moved from the body framing shop, the robotic arms take over. The arms pick up the sub-assemblies from nearby racks while other arms moves in with glue, paint, and rivet guns to seal and join the parts. In fact throughout the whole production of the vehicle, multiple types of robotic arms are used to lead the manufacturing process up until the vehicle needs to be transported to an entirely different area where even more hydraulic arms continue assembly.
Once complete, the whole process leaves us with a near perfectly manufactured vehicle. Tesla though, is just one of many though to employ the use of robotic arms. They can also be found as far as on the International Space Station and even in operating theaters performing complex and delicate surgeries.
While humanoid robots may not yet walk the factory floors, their precursors are steadily making manufacturing plants more and more efficient.
Robotics in Construction
Fully autonomous robots are still more sci-fi than sci-fact, there are plenty of other unique forms more applicable to today's markets. Taking a look at current and future construction technologies reveals a host of smart machines, many of which, rely on fluid power.
We recently published an article on 5 Technologies That We Are Excited To See Enter The Industry. In it, we highlighted Construction Robotics, a company based out of Victor, NY. Construction Robotics is a small company with big innovations in the construction sector. They currently offer two models of robots, the MULE 135 and SAM100, both of which heavily employ fluid power in their designs. The SAM100 is a brick laying robot that moves on rollers and a track with a hydraulic platform that moves up for each layer of bricks. The MULE135 is a material lift assistance robot that helps the user lift materials up to 135 lbs with ease. MULE135 uses a pneumatic powered arm that makes the CMU feel almost entirely weightless, resulting in less fatigue and reduction to work related injuries. While both of these devices may look strange on the worksite, they are proving to be absolutely vital to the teams that use them.
If you go to a construction site that utilizes technology from the company Built Robotics, you'll see the same off-highway equipment that you would normally expect to see, with one key difference, there are no human drivers. Built Robotics has designed kits that can be integrated into standard earth moving equipment such as excavators, dozers, and skid steers.
The technology uses sensors and cameras to detect surrounding hazards such as animals, people and vehicles in addition to using GPS for navigation. With this type of technology, existing equipment can effectively be transformed into autonomous robots.
While this display portrays robotics in a more traditional format, some companies are expanding even further beyond traditions within the industry, and breaking into entirely different grounds of robotics and fluid power.
The Future of Robotics and Fluid Power
Soft robotics is a subset of robotics that focuses on creating machines using materials such as fluids, gels and polymers instead of conventional metallics. The goal of this being, to develop robots that feature more organic and natural movement and expression. To achieve this, pneumatic powered silicone actuators are used to deform softer surfaces and components.
Right now, the more common use for this technology can be found in the biomedical field. Some examples being softer, more life-like prosthetics for amputees and wearable soft exoskeletons for pain relief. On a particularly fascinating note, some of these robots even use hydraulic fluid as a type of "blood" to power their internal workings.
Recently, engineers at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania have invented a robotic fish, resembling a lion fish, powered by its own hydraulic "blood". The fish is made of similar materials found in other soft robotics but instead of pneumatic actuators, it uses hydraulics combined with hydraulic fluid to provide locomotion and, interestingly enough, energy. Essentially, ions in the fluid are broken down providing the charge needed to power the robots internal systems. Once the fluid loses all its ions, new fluid can be injected into the fish to continue its tasks.
While the current objective is to provide a new means of ocean exploration and surveying, it's not hard to see what this could do for the world of fluid power. Imagine running an assembly line with this type of technology. The energy cost savings alone would be worth it as well as the opportunities of a more independent, autonomous manufacturing process. At the end of the day, this is definitely something that will make a major impact on not just robotics, but fluid power going forward.
While it's easy to get lost in all the technology that is available now and on the horizon, it is safe to say fluid power will play a major part of it. Right now more than ever we are seeking new opportunities and solutions to problems that can only be solved with the continued evolution of robotics. With how quickly technology already changes, it shouldn't be long before the world of tomorrow is today.
Tell us, what robotic technology are you excited about? Fluid power integrated or not, we would love to hear it. Reach out to us on our social media or leave us a line on our site. Till next time....
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*Image credits provided in order;
Robotic Arm image courtesy of Michael Jarmoluk from Pixabay
Atlas Hydraulic Robot image courtesy of David Carrero Romero from Wikimedia Commons
Tesla Robotic Arm image courtesy of Patrick Herbert from Flickr
Built Robotics Construction Robots image courtesy of Built Robotics
Soft Robotics image courtesy of UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering from Flickr