2011: Year of the Robot

Engineering at 30 Frames: Over the course of 2011, robots have stepped out of assembly lines to fill roles not commonly attributed to androids: flying, bowling, and now… dancing?


When we talk about robotics we tend to imagine them working away in environments requiring precision, repetition, and dedication; from pallet selecting units in warehouses and distribution centers to assembly lines building vehicles, it’s easy to think of them as two dimensional machines. But outside of those standard applications, 2011 brought out the personalities of robots in many interesting ways.

   In April, Festo allowed their Smartbird project to get off the ground at the 2011 Hanover Trade Fair. The project is just one of many in Festo’s series (The AquaJelly appeared in 2008, AirPenguin in 2009, and Air_ray in late 2010) pushing the limits of robotics. These amazing experiments not only show off the capabilities of new products, but allow younger engineers to see how cool engineering can be.

   Control Engineering’s own Peter Welander reported on ARM Automation and “Earl” (enhanced automated robotic launcher), a robot designed to bowl, in October. The application was created to look at the components that go into bowling (from oiling the lane to detailing ball motion), to better understand how to bowl.

   The latest instance of interesting, non-traditionally applied robotics came to me via www.ted.com: Meet Rezero, the dancing ballbot. This robot sits upon a single ball and utilizes it’s instability to move and interact more like a human. [Péter Fankhauser compares this to himself standing on one foot.] Rezero has multiple “modes” which allow the ballbot to follow or orbit a subject.

   As in every non-traditional application of robotics, this experiment showcases possible uses for the technology. This robot could be utilized to follow patients in a hospital. On a plant floor, it could caution a worker of a forklift turning a corner on the plant floor or a machine that needs servicing. In our world, the applications are limitless. On top of those, Rezero could probably help us all with our tango.

   Learn more about the Rezero, Focus Project Ballbot at www.rezero.ethz.ch.

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