Developing a new robot design for a specific task is a major challenge. Combining traditional rotary motors and gear reducers will produce very limited results. New robot mechanical solutions are the key to expanding robot capabilities. The problem is that new mechanical solutions are hard enough to deal with, writing new control software for a new robot is a major challenge. If every new robot idea required a complete new software solution from the ground up, the level of complexity might present a barrier that seems insurmountable to the mechanical designer.
The introduction of parallel robot actuators such as the Stewart and Delta platforms provided a solution for applications with low mass and extremely high speed pick and place. Rates as high as 300 placements per minute are common with these platforms. The parallel robot requires a different set of transforms to control its motion which are based on the unique mechanical arrangement of the actuators.
The Robot Operating System or ROS is a standard programming environment for robot developers in much the same way Linux is a real time standard operating system for other applications. The ROS community is made up of thousands of researchers and programmers working on making a comprehensive set of software tools that make robot programming easier for the developer. ABB, Adept, Universal Robots, NASA, Southwest Research Institute are all using software components from ROS.
Major tasks like defining the kinematics of the robot, translating the kinematics into control commands for the motors, defining messaging and protocols are all parts of the ROS suite of software. There are also tools for defining autonomous robots and how to organize the operating environment that the robot will deal with. These tasks can be incredibly complex, and if each new research project had to create everything from scratch, progress in the field would slow down to a crawl.
What we are seeing in the marketplace, fortunately, is the opposite. New robot systems like the one from Universal Robots, Baxter and others are being introduced with capabilities that are truly amazing. The Mahoro lab robot, released in 2012, is a dual arm system that performs hazardous bio-tech tasks twice as fast as humans and eliminates the risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals, bacteria and viruses.
Software development for a robot is not trivial, but like Linux, there is a platform whose capabilities are accelerating rapidly and problems like vision recognition and autonomous navigation are being worked on in parallel by teams all over the world.
Payload capability, size and weight are all a function of how well we do the actuators and structures of the robot. The next breakthroughs will all be based on mechatronic innovation.