On the farm or in outer space, Israeli robot arm can lend a hand
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On the farm or in outer space, Israeli robot arm can lend a hand

With multiple links but just 2 motors, Ben-Gurion University researchers' model is cheap and light

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have developed a lightweight, low-cost robotic arm that they say can be used by farmers for picking fruit or in outer space to fix malfunctioning satellites (YouTube Screenshot)
Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have developed a lightweight, low-cost robotic arm that they say can be used by farmers for picking fruit or in outer space to fix malfunctioning satellites (YouTube Screenshot)

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have developed a lightweight, low-cost robotic arm that they say can be used by to pick fruit… or fix malfunctioning satellites.

The MASR multi-link arm-robot operates like a traditional snake robot, which is generally equipped with multiple motors. The new robot, however, uses only two motors: one that travels along the arm to get the gripping mechanism to the right location, and a second that rotates the joint that needs to be flexed.

It is very much like the muscles of a human arm, explained David Zarrouk, a lecturer in BGU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and head of the Bio-Inspired and Medical Robotics Lab. Just as muscles operate joints in the arm, here the motors operate the links in the robotic arm. But instead of multiple motors operating along the arm, all the links are operated by just one motor.

“This unique minimalistic configuration, which can be applied to any serial robot with two or more links, reduces weight, size and cost,” said Zarrouk. It allows a robotic manipulator to achieve a wide range of movements using few activators, or motors.

David Zarrouk, a lecturer in Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and head of the Bio-Inspired and Medical Robotics Lab, demonstrating the space application of the robotic arm, March 5, 2018; (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

“This robot is easy to operate and likely has a number of applications including space, agriculture, and industry, as well as search and rescue,” he said.

The robot design is ideal for space applications due to its light weight, and could be used to fix malfunctioning satellites, and for docking or refueling.

One flaw of this robot is its speed.  But time is not an issue in space, said Zarrouk, at a presentation of the robot at the university on Monday. “Things move slowly in space. But weight is an issue, so it would actually be good for space.”

Speed is an issue, however, for fruit picking, another application the robot could be used for. To be commercially viable, a robot should be picking fruit at a speed of some 3 seconds per fruit, said Yael Edan, the head of the university’s ABC Robotics Initiative, which develops robots that are inspired by biological models and human behavior.

The researchers have only just completed the second prototype of the arm-robot and have not yet timed it picking fruit, said Zarrouk. However, because of the light weight of the robot’s arms, one vehicle could be equipped with multiple arms, which would speed up the process.

In any event, the BGU researchers are also experimenting with adding motors to increase speed.

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