Industrial robots are more humanoid than you think

Complete with a body, double-jointed shoulders, arms, elbows and wrists, industrial robots are as much modeled after the human form as Michelangelo’s David.

You might not be too surprised that the first question people ask me when they find out I’m the head of product communications for ABB Robotics is: Why don’t robots look like people?

The truth is they do. The first modern human-looking robots are known to have been built in the mid-late 1920s in the United States, Japan and England. According to Italian scholars, Leonardo di Vinci also had plans for a mechanical knight—although little evidence exists that he actually got around to building it.

In the US, researchers at Westinghouse built a humanoid robot—called the Televox—in 1927. The following year in the United Kingdom a humanoid robot named Eric was crafted by Captain William Richards and A. H. Reffell. And in 1929 in Japan, the humanoid robot Gakutensoku was assembled by biologist Makoto Nishimura.

All of these originals had very little functionality and were a bit gimmicky—intended to draw crowds and entertain dignitaries. They were also fitted with very primitive movement mechanisms and had limited expressive capabilities; some could say a few words or sentences and Gakutensoku could even complete very basic writing tasks. Of all of them, the six-foot tall 140 pound Eric especially piqued my interest: he was made of aluminum, his limbs were powered by electric motors, he had lightbulbs for eyes and used wireless radio to “talk” through a speaker in his mouth.

Dozens of humanoid robots have appeared on the scene since these first attempts, and there can be no doubt that the entertainment industry has fueled our fascination with them. Like the models they are sculpted after, humanoid robots come in all shapes and sizes; some are good looking and others, well, quite frankly, are ugly—even, grotesque. Their life-like features and traits can so closely resemble people it’s unnerving. Take Domo, for example, an experimental robot created by engineers at MIT’s Humanoid Robotics Group. This human-like robot was designed to assist humans with every day chores. And then there’s NASA’s Robonaut (pictured above), which is helping the space agency figure out how to best use robots on future missions that may be too dangerous for humans.

ABB robots and the human form

So, why then don’t ABB’s robots resemble people?

Until I started working in Robotics, I would have told you I had absolutely no idea. The truth, though, is that they do. In fact, there is absolutely no doubt that ABB engineers took the human form into consideration when they designed our 6-axis industrial robots, also known as IRBs. Just look at any one of them closely and the resemblance is uncanny.

Each IRB stands on a base— its “feet”—and has a long sleek body. But it’s their arm and ability to bend up and down from right to left at the shoulder, elbow and wrist that truly mimics the human body. Some are blind and all are mute. An ABB IRB’s brain and central nervous system is housed in the robot controller, known as the IRC5, and the RobotWare Operating System.  ABB has developed motion control technologies, TrueMove and QuickMove, which are key to any robot’s performance in terms of accuracy, speed, cycle-time, programmability and synchronization.

Since those first tentative steps into the world of robotics, the usefulness of these machines has increased dramatically. We are now living in a time that they have become affordable enough to start making their way into all sorts of industries once thought to be beyond their reach. And with the world quickly moving towards robots that can complete everyday chores like Rosie from the Jetsons, we can really only dream about what the future of robots may bring.

One thing is for sure though: they are only going to get more and more “human” in their abilities.

Lead image credit: Some rights reserved by NASARobonaut

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About the author

Nicole Salas

I'm the Events Manager for ABB Robotics globally. I joined ABB in 2007, working for corporate communications in the United States before joining Robotics in 2013. I began my career as a journalist in Caracas, Venezuela and have worked for United Rentals Inc. as well as several international public and investor relations agencies. Outside of the office, you will find me racing sailboats.
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