Mechatronics, like every other field of human endeavor, is undergoing rapid change driven in large part by the availability of increasingly more powerful processor technology. In the September 2013 issue of Design World the cover article features a “toy” robot based on an inverted pendulum control system. The robot is able to move on a stabilized platform made up of dc brush motors, encoders and gear reducers powering 2 independent wheels. Using an ARM Cortex M-zero processor combined with accelerometer and gyro input for orientation of the robot, the control system is able to keep the robot upright despite disturbances like impacts and payloads added to the unit.
The controller is the smallest in the Cortex family of 32 bit processors retailing at $1, yet is able to run the 2 wheeled system at 100 Hertz update rate with plenty of processing power for its other tasks. The robot is equipped with stereo infrared sensors that provide gesture control inputs for guiding the robot to follow, turn, stop and reverse motion. It can also use music as an input to “dance” to your favorite tune stored on any Apple device.
All of this technology is available and relatively inexpensive. This makes it economical to embed easily into anything you want. So the question becomes; “what would you like to automate today?” The potential transformation of embedding intelligence into everything is more far-reaching. What happens to the hydraulic and pneumatic actuator when it only takes $15 worth of electronics and sensors to convert the low tech actuator into a high performance closed loop version capable of very sophisticated, adaptive motion? With Internet integration and condition monitoring software we will be able to implement preventive maintenance algorithms and send email alerts when system issues occur.
Science and technology educators believe that the key to unlocking innovation in coming years is the education of young people in the areas of technology. At a minimum, the increased number of people with exposure to the practical aspects of applied science is necessary in order for society to be able to take advantage of the technology as it emerges. How significant the impact is on society will be measured in the next 20 years as the grade school kids become professionals and make their contributions to the world.
At the same time, what will actuator technology look like in 20 years after the current generation has had time to re-invent and improve all the basic tools of the mechatronic world? Like being born into the age of cellphones, the generation that comes next will have never known the limitations of today’s technology. Whole new products and markets will be created that never existed. Hopefully some of mankind’s biggest challenges will be addressed along the way.