US researchers have developed portable robotic arms designed to combine human and robotic skills. By doing so they are helping to shape future manufacturing processes.

Industry of the future: robotic arms augmenting human capability

In 2013, some 179,000 industrial robots were sold worldwide, with the automotive industry purchasing around 40% of them, according to the latest report from the International Federation of Robotics. As well as highlighting the double-digit growth from 2012, the report points to the new prospects for man-machine collaboration using easy-to-operate robots that can learn to understand and mimic human actions. The concept of people and machines working side-by-side is now gradually giving way to a better understanding and optimisation of the respective skills of humans and robots. In this vein, researchers at MIT’s d’Arbeloff Laboratory for Information Systems and Technology have developed robotic limbs which become an extension of the human body so as to make the wearer more productive in the factory. Their system, which is designed to be used in manufacturing, differs from existing industrial robots in that it does not replace man by a machine.

Human being equipped with robotic arms or legs

Harry Asada and Federico Parietti, the researchers behind the Supernumerary Robotic Limbs (SRL) concept, have developed a system of robotic limbs. Long and easy to manage, the robotic limbs are placed on either side of the body, strapped to the user’s shoulders or waist, depending on whether they are intended to serve as additional arms or legs. The two limbs are activated by a motor, contained within a kind of rucksack, and the structure is designed so as not to hamper the user’s movements. The mechanism uses a ‘brushless’ motorised system on auto-pilot, which means that the motors run on very little power. It is thus very similar to artificial prostheses in that the structure interacts with the wearer, providing support and stability to a human body undertaking difficult tasks.

Designing the future manufacturing environment

As Olivier Levard says in his book Nous sommes tous des robots (We are All Robots), we will increasingly see people wearing technology directly on their bodies. In fact the SRL researchers describe their system as a ‘co-robot’ which acts as a partner, thus opening up new ways of thinking about manufacturing. Their system is still a prototype, but the concept outlines three research themes going forward: the design and aesthetics of the ‘co-robot’; dynamic modelling or reproducing human motion; and the relationship between Man and robotic structures. Not least, a situation where people start to work closely with machinery demands precise safety standards. Accordingly the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is currently working on a Technical Specification in order to provide reliable safety requirements for collaboration between people and industrial robots.

By Eliane HONG