Factories are full of them: Robot arms building cars, etching circuit boards, building iPads.But it wasnt until recently that they started to work alongside humans and even more recently that average humans like me could program them to do their bidding. Today, I programmed a robot arm to give me a high five and to act out a little comedy sketch. The robot, Universal Robots UR5, is a 40-pound aluminum arm that, fully extended, stands about three feet high.
Universal Robots CEO Enrico Iversen, who’s been with the Denmark-based company since 2008, told me that the UR5’s two defining features are safety and ease of programmability. Even though the baseline, third-generation $35,000 model is not equipped with any visual or touch sensors, it is fully aware all the same and designed not to hurt people who might be working inches from it. The software is constantly receiving feedback from all the motors. If any encounter resistance, they stop.
It’s for this reason that, last summer, the UR5 was chosen for a brief cameo in Halle Berry’s summer series Extant. In its scene, the UR5 is shown using a laser to perform surgery on Berry’s character. Obviously, UR5 is no surgeon, but it can be programmed to perform scripted actions and, more importantly, will stop moving if any of its motors encounter resistance. The fact that it wouldn’t hurt Berry or any of the other nearby actors made it the perfect robot costar.
You program UR5 through a “Teach Pendant,” which is a roughly 12-inch tablet attached to UR5’s 40-pound controller box that we placed on the floor below our table. In addition to the screen, there’s a large physical power button and, more importantly, a big red safety kill button.
There are two ways to program UR5: You can use the on-screen interface to precisely position each of the robot arm’s joints or, my preference, by setting way points on the screen that you then physically position on the robot.
For the second method, you tell the onscreen program you want to set a way point, hold down a small black button on the back of the Teach Pendant and, while doing so, move the robot into the exact position you want for that waypoint. As I moved UR5 about, I could feel the motor tension, which made the robot feel somewhat alive.
Onscreen, a virtual version of UR5 copied all my moves. With just a couple minutes of training, I was able to, with the help of Iversen, program UR5 for our epic high five, which it performed slowly, but with deliberate satisfaction, and then for a tiny bit of scripted comedy.
Built entirely in Denmark, the robot arms are typically used in factories to perform tedious chores like sorting. In Glidewell Dental Labs, for example, seven UR5s are being used to sort 14 different shades of dental crowns. A Universal Robots spokesperson told me that the robot is saving the company hours of production time and freeing up workers to perform more skilled tasks, which was in attempt to try and ease concerns that robots like these are taking away human jobs.
Baxter and UR5 do have something in common, they both feature an aesthetic designed to make humans feel comfortable and safe around the robot. In the case of Baxter, it’s a graphical face, complete with two cartoon eyes, on its touch screen. Each one of UR5’s motors is covered by tough baby blue plastic. The color was “chosen specifically to be welcoming — inherently signaling ‘no danger,’” said a company spokesperson. Read more…