Whether you’re a fan of R2-D2, Wall-E, Robocop, or the Terminator, one can imagine a future where we co-exist with intelligent machines. ABB’s FRIDA (Flexible Robot Industrial Dual Arm) and Bot & Dolly’s IRIS Robotic Platform are at the forefront of a new generation of industrial machines that illustrate the fascinating potential of articulated robots. FRIDA is designed to work alongside humans in a factory while IRIS is spending its time making movies.
ABB collaborated with a multinational team of manufacturers, scientists, and engineers to develop FRIDA. Lightweight and about the size of a small human, FRIDA is meant to work beside human counterparts in assembly factories. FRIDA’s size is important because it can be placed where robots have previously been too large to integrate. Complimenting its small size FRIDA also has remarkable dexterity and presents an opportunity for telerobotic operation:
To interact with its environment, the robot has been equipped with a safe and flexible gripper flanked with suction cups, and it can be connected to vision cameras.
Of course, where FRIDA may also excel is in the ability to function continuously on a 24 hour work cycle. Foxconn Technology Group announced in August of 2011 that they would be augmenting their current workforce with the purchase of 1 million robots over the next three years. Foxconn has not revealed who it will be purchasing the robots from, however, FRIDA or one of its later iterations is positioned well to take on the assembly services Foxconn currently provides its clients. FRIDA is in prototype stage but is undergoing extensive testing according to ABB which also notes that FRIDA is part of the FP7 Rosetta program to develop more human-like robots.
Unlike FRIDA, there are robots already being leveraged in cinema to produce previously impossible shots. Bot & Dolly’s IRIS is a motion-control system that was used extensively in the filming of Alfonso Cuarón’s upcoming zero-gravity thriller Gravity. Filmmakers are able to program IRIS’ movements using Autodesk Maya, a standard modeling and animation toolset, IRIS is special in that it can perform these customized movements with a high level of precision.
IRIS doesn’t get tired, doesn’t complain, and can be tweaked to a users need. IRIS can be fitted with cameras, lights, and a variety of sensors as showcased by IRIS’ recent work as the Kinetisphere at Google’s I/O 2012 conference. Watching IRIS in action can be as awe inspiring as it is unnerving, the fictional Tyrell Corporation’s motto “more human than human” comes to mind as the massive machine performs a symphony of articulation. What started for Bot & Dolly’s Jeff Linell as a purchase of three Fanuc s430iL car assembly robots may result in the future of cinematography. Here’s a video from ElectricTV.com showing off the remarkable capabilities of the IRIS system.
FRIDA and IRIS stand as the forebears of a new kind of robotic interaction, working beside their human counterparts these machines represent an evolution of our productive capability. Constrained only by human imagination, robots will replace humans in factories and many other places. Our challenge is to understand the changing relationship we have with these intelligent machines and create economies that leverage our co-existence. Nolan Bushnell recently tweeted:
The battle for jobs in the future will focus on creative problem solving. Robots get the rest of the jobs.
If Nolan’s prediction is to be believed, where manual tasks such as product assembly, waste management, and war fighting are done by machines, we have a responsibility to set our sights on greater challenges. Global sustainability solutions, greater research and observation of our planet, and large-scale peace are only a few challenges previously thought unsolvable only a few generations ago. These challenges will require the type of creative problem solving Mr. Bushnell describes and will require the helping hands of many to implement. In a future where we live and work with robots the hands that make the future may not only be of flesh and bone but of fiber optics and silicon as well.