Close encounters of the Third Kind for plastics
Robots become guardian angels
It would be a great shame to relegate robots to devices simply able to help us with our chores. Although some of them have been designed with that sole purpose in mind, others have much more noble tasks and help out surgeons, the disabled and even policemen. The result is often spectacular, particularly given that such robots are often humanoid in shape and are able to talk.
Every year, like all car manufacturers,bre. oyota develops many prototypes aimed at improving mobility for the masses. Lately, the company's engineers have been taking a close look at the mobility of elderly, as well as disabled, people. Until recently, their research focused on improving and refining wheelchairs. Believing that they could do better, a team developed the i-foot, a device halfway between a robot and an exoskeleton. In fact, it comprises of two massive legs carrying a futuristic-looking pod, which can walk forwards and backwards, go up and down stairs, and even dance.
Priority was given to "passenger" safety. The solution was found following the creation of a new sweet potato starch-based resin reinforced with various secret fibres. The result is so convincing that the polymer is now used to manufacture the flat-face cowls on Toyota's luxury brand Lexus cars.
Plastics welcomed with open arms
Seeing that his grandfather, who suffers from arthrogryposis, was unable to eat unassisted as any type of movement had become difficult, a young American engineer came up with the idea of designing a robotic arm able to reproduce the movement from plate to mouth. More than creating a simple programmable arm, he also wanted to create a user-friendly, fluid, silent and, above all, aesthetically-pleasing object in order to prevent it looking like a medical device. The young engineer thus turned to the vast catalogue of polymers. Plastics, instead of metal, were used to manufacture the gears in order to make the device silent. The various motors are encased and insulated in a very flattering casing that was only possible thanks to the ease with which polymers can be moulded. As soon as it was commercialised, the Obi robot was approved by the American Food & Drug Administration. A great emancipation for users and their relatives!
The future is incredibly serene for robotic arms.They can now be found in operating rooms, although still in experimental forms, and are already more precise than a surgeon's hand. With good reason, because robots are not subject to the vagaries of the human body, they are never tired, distracted or stressed, and never imprecise. Surgeons will usually successfully complete a maximum of 19 out of every 20 stitches, while the robot will imperturbably, and successfully, complete each one. As for polymers, once enriched with silver ions, they are the ultimate weapon for killing all bacteria likely to be found in an operating room and therefore for preventing nosocomial diseases. This, and the ease with which they can be moulded, is why they can be found on all these robots.
Ubo, a robot to help the aging process
We already knew about robots being used to stimulate children with autism. Now comes the recently unveiled Ubo, a small French robot intended to be a medical, and domestic, assistant and a conversational companion. Ubo is aimed mainly at an audience of, often isolated, elderly people living in a state of semi-dependence. The principle is a simple one: a connected watch constantly sends medical data (heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, respiration, oxygen saturation, activity, fall, etc.) to the robot. Upon detecting the slightest anomaly, Ubo contacts the relevant persons or services. So far, so unexceptional. However, UBO is also a personal domestic assistant designed to make life easier for its "masters". It obeys vocal commands to activate domestic and household appliances (lights, curtains, TV, radio, heating, air conditioning, etc.) as well as all connected objects in its vicinity.
Finally, UBO is also a conversational companion who listens, answers questions and is able to hold a conversation thanks to the virtual vocal assistant integrated into its system. It can also be used to make and receive video calls over the Internet thanks to its digital tablet. The first commercial run is expected to be in 2018, at a price below € 1,000. Polymers were largely used to reduce costs and arrive at such an unbeatable price. The cherry on the cake is that no efforts were spared in designing UBO, and his appearance reminiscent of the famous R2D2 is particularly attractive.
Plastics suitable for service
If you want to see police robots, you'll have to travel to Dubai. Science fiction fans may be slightly disappointed, however, as this policeman is still a far cry from being Robocop.This robot is currently deployed in shopping malls and the main tourist sites, and can be used to pay fines, report crimes and obtain tourist information. Developed by Spanish firm Pal Robotics, it weighs in at 100 kg, is 1m70 tall and moves around on wheels thanks to an autonomous navigation system. It is able to greet and converse in nine languages, and can also detect emotions on faces and recognise hand gestures from a distance of 1.5 meters. The Spanish manufacturer gave priority to robustness and ease of maintenance and naturally, it opted for polymers such as ABS and polycarbonate.
Another advantage of plastics is that the parts are simple and affordable to the manufacturer and can be very easily changed when necessary.
This type of robot is appearing all over the place. They can now be found in shopping malls, where they will inform and guide shoppers, and in prisons, where they help provide increased surveillance.
A robot's core
Many scientists believe that the future of robots lies in, so-called, soft robotics that involves creating soft robots made from elastic or deformable materials such as silicone and elastomers. There are many projects in this area led by university teams, due to their experimental nature, seeking to reduce the price of certain robots and improving classic robotics answers to issues relating to self-repair and self-replication.
Researchers at Poland's Warsaw University, assisted by Italian and British colleagues, have developed a robot made from liquid crystal elastomers. The robot has no moving parts, and is able to crawl like a caterpillar, powered only by light. Even better, the "caterpillar" can climb walls and push objects ten times heavier and larger than itself.
Liquid crystal elastomers are networks of long chains of polymers in intermediary phases between the solid crystalline phase and the liquid phase. They react to light by contracting in a specific direction. At this stage, it is still only fundamental research, and no specific applications have been planned for the caterpillar. However, its creators hope to produce a larger version equipped with a camera for use by the secret service.