For thousands of years, technological advancements have eased our lives and made it possible for us to work more efficiently. Just think for a minute: can’t the invention of the wheel or the steam engine be seen as another huge step in process automation?
Similar to the steam engine that opened its way into factories, locomotives, steamboats, or mines, robots have been continuously reshaping the modern world for decades. Though their presence in the automotive and hardware fabrication fields has become inherent, robots are nowadays not only able to mimic our abilities but even expand them, opening their way into a vast array of industries. Take a second and mentally compare General Motors’ industrial robots spot welding back in the ‘60s and the frailty of a human life during a robot-assisted surgery. It took us decades of assiduous work and refinement to achieve that!
Today we are going to have a look at three industries that have been revolutionized by the use of robotic arms.
It is commonly acknowledged that the automotive sector is the one robots left their most significant imprint on. But it took developers decades to bring them to the performance and refinement we see today.
Back in 1961, General Motors was introducing the first industrial robotic prototypes. Though limited to spot welding, their efficiency caught everyone’s attention, including Ford’s. In 1969, Victor Scheinman – a Stanford engineer – created the Stanford Arm. This 6-axis, electrically powered, and computer-controlled robot was able to move and assemble parts following a continuous repeated pattern, which made it the perfect addition to the assembly line patented by Ransom Olds in 1901. By 1974, the Stanford Arm could piece together a Ford Model T water pump using only optical and contact sensors. The result was obvious: an unprecedented commercial production boom.
In 1974, MIT developed the Silver Arm, a robotic arm that used a microprocessor and embedded pressure-sensitive sensors which allowed it to do small-parts assembly. The fine movements of the arms were similar to those of human fingers.
From that point on, companies have spent huge amounts of moneyin process automation for their assembly plants. Just take a look at the video released by SEAT in which 2000 skillfully choreographed KUKA robots can produce a new car body every 68 seconds.
Mens sana in corpore sano. What better way to keep a body healthy than with minimally invasive surgery when necessary? And robotic procedures are becoming the new standard of healthcare at a rapid pace, providing enhanced stability, accuracy, range of motion, and the possibility to integrate them with modern imaging technology. Nowadays, robots are used invarious fields such as neurosurgery, gynecology, microsurgery, endoscopy, cardiothoracic procedures, gastrointestinal, urologic, otolaryngological, or orthopedic.
It all started in 1994 when AESOP was FDA approved. Initially combining a telemanipulator and a foot pedal (which was later replaced by voice-control), AESOP offered enhanced stability and reduced risks caused by fatigue or inexperience. With AESOP as its base, the ZEUS telemanipulator system was developed. The ZEUS system consists of two separate hubs: the patient’s and the surgeon’s side, with the surgeon’s side controlling the patient’s side. The system is endowed with two arms that are manipulated from the surgeon’s side and one arm that holds the voice-controlled camera. Though initiallythought out for cardiothoracic surgical procedures, its use was extended to other surgical subspecialties.
Around that same time, another robotic surgical system was developed: daVinci. Consisting of the surgeon’s console, one camera-holding robotic arm, and two robotic operating arms, the daVinci system allows the robotic arm to replicate training environments the surgeon’s movements. Since then, the daVinci system was subject to various improvements: three operating arms (2002), improved handling and range of motion of the arms (2006), HD imaging system and a second surgeon’s console ideal for training inexperienced surgeons (2009), or the VeSPA system which enables single-site robotic procedures.
Though the ZEUS and da Vinci systems dominated the field of robotic surgery for more than a decade, new companies are currently contributing to this constantly evolving field. Just take a look at this video to see some of the most amazing medical robots in action.
The mining industry
Historically, mining has been one of the industries that registered the highest amount of deaths. From cave-ins to explosions and unseen enemies such as methane gas or carbon monoxide, miners used to put their lives at stake each time they entered a mine.
Thanks to technology and advanced robotics, work environments have become a lot safer. From autonomous hauling trucks able to independently navigate hazardous haul roads to UAVs able to monitor traffic, road conditions, possible hazards, and provide 3D maps and real-time aerial footage, or robotic rock-drilling rigs able to detectobstacles and move and dig independently, robots have made mining more efficient, accurate, and safe.
And there’s more to the story: JULIUS. Developed by a team of engineers at the Technische Universität Bergakademie Freiberg, Julius is not bigger than a shopping cart. Endowed with a Universal Robots UR5 robotic arm and sensors, Julius can perform underground mine-surveying tasks, carry heavy equipment, and collect valuable sensory data that allows for an accurate sample quality analysis. If you want to see Julius in action, check out this video.
According to Dr. Bernhard Jung, the idea behind Julius is to create a ‘symbiotic’ human-robot team, a relationship in which each one of them brings to the table a specific quality: the robotic assistant its precisions and physical strength and the human his ability to make decisions.
To sum up…
As this new generation of robotic technology broadens and, in some cases, completely replaces human work, our view of robots and their ability to support us and improve the world we live in gradually changes. From docile home companions to accurate surgical systems, efficient co-workers, or tough substitutes in hazardous sites, robots play a significant role in our daily reality. To take us to a more personal level and paraphrase LG’s tagline, we can conclude that Life’s …Handy! Just take a look at Rozum’s robotic arm and their barista coffee station or Moley’s robotic kitchen and you’ll get my point!
Shah, J., Vyas, A., & Vyas, D. (2014). The History of Robotics in Surgical Specialties. American journal of robotic surgery, 1(1), 12–20. doi:10.1166/ajrs.2014.1006