Strong robotic arm with a light touchRobotics experts have...


September 21, 1992|By Leslie Cauley

Strong robotic arm with a light touch

Robotics experts have long sought to duplicate that miracle machine of Mother Nature, the human arm.

The human arm -- from the shoulder to the fingertips -- is supremely equipped to manipulate objects with a sliding scale of force. The human finger can tap a pane of glass so lightly that it barely registers on the pane's surface. Or it can, in an instant, turn rigid and poke a hole through it with enough force to shatter the glass.

That quality, called compliance, is one that robotics engineers have been unable to duplicate.

Even the most sophisticated robotic arms on the market have trouble changing force midstream, which could be one reason why 80 percent of all assembly work is still performed by humans.

Hughes STX Corp. in Lanham, a division of Hughes Aircraft Co., hopes to change that.

The company is developing a new robotic device called SMARTee that integrates compliance with speed and industrial power.

How sensitive is SMARTee's touch? Soft enough to keep a child's balloon held in its grip from being popped by an industrial needle, said Thurston Brooks, manager of Hughes' Robotic & Automation Division, which came up with the SMARTee concept.

"When we told SMARTee to be 'soft' with the balloon, it would back away so fast from the needle you couldn't even make a dent in the balloon," Mr. Brooks said.

The secret of SMARTee, short for "Smart End Effector," is in its mechanical construction and sophisticated software. Most robots are built vertically, which gives them range. But SMARTee's got parallel construction, which gives it more strength and dexterity.

Then there's the software. Conventional robots review their software instructions an average of 30 times a second. SMARTee reviews its internal instructions 150 times a second.

Mr. Brooks said developers hope to get the review cycle up to 500 times per second within a few months, which should give SMARTee enough speed and agili- ty to perform a gamut of tasks that conventional robots wouldn't dare try -- like surgery.

According to Mr. Brooks, one organization is looking at the possibility of using SMARTee for surgeries where a soft touch and robotic precision might come in handy. He says the device could eventually be used for a variety of applications.

Hughes, which has applied for a patent on SMARTEee, hopes to place three test models of SMARTee around the country by December, and go into full production next spring. Where do Martin Marietta Corp., 3M Corp. and Procter & Gamble Co. go when they need to find a top-flight university scientist to help develop a new product?

One place is Cartermill Inc. in Baltimore, which maintains a data base of the top university scientists and their projects at major universities and research institutions in the United States and Canada.

The data base, called BEST North America, currently carries 50,000 records from 125 research institutions, including Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health. The data base is constantly updated.

BEST North America is available to anybody who wants to use it for a flat fee of $8,500 a year. There are no connection, print or other charges. Cartermill claims 60 member companies.

"Our goal is to encourage usage throughout our member companies, so we don't restrict them," said Carrie Bellware, a Cartermill spokeswoman.

The annual subscription fee also gives members unlimited access to BEST Europe, which contains similar listings for research institutions in Britain and Western Europe.

Members have unlimited access to a number of other data bases geared around the academic research community. Those data bases offer information about the universities and their specialized facilities, inventions and licensable technologies and undergraduate and postgraduate students available for employment. There are also profiles of major research projects under way at the various institutions.

BEST Biotech, which carries listings on 9,000 biotech researchers in the United States and Canada, is available to BEST North America members for an additional $2,000. For non-members, the cost is $3,500 a year. Like Cartermill's other data bases, BEST Biotech is being constantly expanded.

Cartermill, which maintains its headquarters on Thames Street in Fells Point, was founded by Kenneth Blaisdell, a former assistant provost for research at Johns Hopkins University, in 1988. It started offering data base services commercially in 1991.

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