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Flexible Robotic Arm Guided by AR Goggles

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Image: Imperial College London

Researchers at the Imperial College London have created a flexible robotic arm that can be guided by an individual using augmented reality (AR) goggles. The highly customizable robotic arm can be twisted and turned in all directions and used in areas like spacecraft maintenance, manufacturing, and injury rehabilitation. 

People could manually bend the arm of the robot into the desired shape for each task, and this is possible due to the layers of mylar sheets located inside. Each one of these mylar sheets slides over one another and can lock into place. With that said, some users have trouble bending the robot without guidance. 

Implementing AR Technology

To overcome some of these challenges, the team of researchers at Imperial’s REDS (Robotic manipulation: Engineering, Design, and Science) Lab designed the system so users can rely on AR to configure the robot. With mixed reality smart glasses and motion tracking cameras, users are presented with templates and designs that are superimposed onto the real-world environment. The robot arm can then be adjusted to match the template. To make things even easier, the template turns green when successful configuration is achieved, and the robot locks into place. 

Dr. Nicolas Rojas from Imperial’s Dyson School of Design Engineering is senior author of the research paper

“One of the key issues in adjusting these robots is accuracy in their new position. We humans aren’t great at making sure the new position matches the template, which is why we looked to AR for help,” Dr. Rojas said. 

“We’ve shown that AR can simplify working alongside our malleable robot. The approach gives users a range of easy-to-create robot positions, for all sorts of applications, without needing so much technical expertise.”

Testing and Applying the System

The system was tested on five men aged 20-26 with experience in robotics. However, they had no experience with manipulating malleable robots. According to the published paper, they were able to successfully and accurately adjust the robot with the new system. 

There are many applications for a system like this, such as manufacturing and vehicle maintenance. The light weight of the arm makes it especially applicable for spacecraft maintenance, and its gentleness enables it to be used in injury rehabilitation. 

PhD researchers Alex Ranne and Angus Clark are co-first authors of the research.

“In many ways it can be seen as a detached, bendier, third arm. It could help in many situations where an extra limb might come in handy and help to spread the workload,” the pair said. 

The researchers will continue to work on improving the robot and its AR, and they will attempt to introduce touch and audio elements to increase the robot’s accuracy. Another major goal is to strengthen the robots, since they become less rigid when locked in position. These characteristics could impact both precision and accuracy. 

Alex McFarland is a Brazil-based writer who covers the latest developments in artificial intelligence & blockchain. He has worked with top AI companies and publications across the globe.