Challenging the perception of robots, through dance.


If we think about traditional automated manufacturing processes we automatically think about cumbersome, fenced robotics that could perform tasks at very high speed.

Efficiency is key in modern manufacturing processes of today and the demand for technology means that robotics as we know it, is evolving.

Collaborative robots (or cobots) now feature in many automated manufacturing processes as a means to address operational efficiencies; providing manufacturers the opportunity to incorporate collaborative robotics into existing applications – robots designed to work alongside humans, each augmenting the others abilities. And whilst cobots are designed to work in close proximity to humans, there are also solutions available on the market today that allow industrial robots to operate within unfenced environments, providing business owners both cost savings and flexible automated robotic solutions (eliminating the need for expensive fencing and the need to realign existing operational infrastructures).

These solutions are unbelievably easy to implement, even within confined environments; cutting edge technology is redefining just how we perceive and use robotics, within any given environment.

This point was demonstrated beautifully just recently, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London as part of the London Design Festival.

Slave/Master by BRIA (Brooke Roberts Innovation Agency) was an art installation designed to change the public’s perception of robots and explore the borders between human and robot interaction. It brought together a host of automation technology, software and engineering that culminated in a collaborative performance between the London Contemporary Ballet Company and KUKA industrial robots; the LBR iiwa; intelligent industrial work assistant (KUKA’s truly collaborative robot) and the KR6 six axis robot.

Software partner on this project were Autodesk UK, developers of software for the engineering and manufacturing industries (among others) ‘Powermill’. The CAD software was utilised for offline programming of the collaborative robot iiwa and ultimately generating the dance motions. The data sets generated from Powermill were parsed and imported into the real robot system.

An important requirement throughout the project was for both robots to run synchronously. This was achieved with a standard known as PROFINET, in which both robot systems are able to communicate with each other via an I/O channel.

The performance took place against a back drop of evolving 3D graphics, generated by the output data of the LBR iiwa’s. KUKA worked closely with Holition (London based augmented reality solutions and software provider) to ensure that their software communicated with the LBR iiwa’s. In order that this could be achieved both robots were given their own IP addresses, from which algorithms were harvested and ultimately projected onto a large screen, providing a ‘window to the souls of the robots’. A musical score by composer Rupert Cross (Cinderella, Brave, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Thor) added a fifth dimension to the installation. The largely electronic composition incorporates the ‘live’ sounds made by the joints of the robots as they move.

The LBR iiwa are truly collaborative and the safety considerations, when developing the cell, adhered to stringent HRC (human robot collaboration) compliance. This safety requirement was met by utilising a condition whereby if a collision is detected on one of the robot systems; both will halt for two seconds, and ultimately continue on the routine automatically, regardless of which robot stopped and when within the routine. Aside from this, a joint impedance controller was also used to ensure that the robot was compliant (applicable to the torque within each of the LBR iiwa’s seven axis).

The procedure for programming the KR6 robots was more complicated, in which a lot more safety aspects had to be considered. These robots cannot be utilised in an industrial environment without additional safety measures, such as light guards.

The procedure for generating the motions for these robots was very much similar to the LBR’s, in which the CAD software Powermill, was used for generating the robot paths offline.

Each of the defined robot sets were installed in parallel as an entire ‘system’, in which each robot was integrated into a safety circuit. An external safety stop was installed which could be used to instantly halt each robot system when triggered. In addition to this, a set of light guards were installed around the KR6 robot systems in order to prevent the dancers coming into contact with the robots when they were operating at full velocity.

Stringent testing and rehearsals took place prior to the installation of both robot systems to ensure that both the safety of the dancers was paramount, but also to ensure that the timing of each robot system perfectly matched the musical score to which they and the ballerinas would be performing.

The project was the brain child of BRIA (Brooke Roberts Innovation Agency) whose vision was to challenge the common fear surrounding robotic technology. KUKA System Partners Adelphi Automation and SCM Handling, together with KUKA, immediately agreed to support the project and embrace the concept of realigning misconceptions that surround human/robot engagement.

These days, consumer demand is driving product through put and the need for dexterity and physical interaction between human and robot is essential. Efficiency is key to success within the manufacturing arena; many problems can be addressed with human-robot collaborative solutions. Consider speed, precision, accuracy, and adaptability.

Slave/Master beautifully highlights just how the industrial robot can be programmed to compliment the human, regardless of its environment and the extent to which its form can be manipulated along a series of motion sequences, at our command, using a simple application programme.

Whilst it has been widely reported that artificial intelligence and robotics may be responsible for loss of jobs in the future, we are still some way off robots thinking for themselves.

For now, we humans are the oppressors and the robots are our tools, whatever the task; welding, packing, operating or dancing…


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