Shake hands with a robot

29 January 2009

Robots aren’t all hardworking industrial machines as RoboThespian from Engineered Arts proves. The life-sized robot entertains audiences with theatrical performances and was recently given a technology boost to expand its capabilities for audience interaction.

Engineered Arts specialises in the design and build of interactive exhibitions, audiovisual and mixed media installations, involving a combination of art and engineering. Based in Penryn, UK, the company has designed exhibits for the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK since 1999, and other UK based customers include the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, the Science Museum in London and the Glasgow Science Centre.

The first generation of RoboThespian robots were developed in January 2005, when Engineered Arts was commissioned to create a troupe of robotic actors to perform at the Eden Project's 'Mechanical Theatre'. The initial design work focused on the necessary mechanical engineering and control systems, resulting in an installation piece that featured tireless performers who needed no lunch. Further development focussed on allowing audience interaction. Engineered Arts embarked on a development programme to create a set of fully-integrated hardware modules for controlling the robots' various valves and motors, and added internet connectivity to the control software, to facilitate access to web-based public information sources such as Wikipedia.

The first interactive RoboThespian was exhibited at a conference hosted by the Association of Science-Technology Centers in Los Angeles, in November 2007. The robot's repertoire included a series of song and dance routines, and for the first time, it was able to respond to its audience vocally and through reactive physical movement. However, Engineered Arts pushed forward with developments that would allow people to shake RoboThespian by the hand, and to make it perform their own routines.

Articulated hands were created with an additional axis in each arm, and feedback sensors on all movement axes. In total there are 31 powered axes - six per arm, four per head and two per leg, plus four in the head, two in the body and one for rotating the entire figure through 180 degrees - each of which features full proportional control. The robot contains six dc motors, but all its major movements are controlled by Festo DMSP series fluidic muscles. These high power-to-weight pneumatic actuators essentially comprise a flexible tube with reinforcing fibres in the form of a lattice structure; they contract as they are filled with compressed air, and elongate again when the air is removed. Fluidic muscles suit highly dynamic, short move length applications such as this, and their peristaltic type movement is exceptionally smooth and lifelike.

Festo currently produces three variants of fluidic muscles, with diameters of 10, 20 and 40mm. The company is also considering developing a 5mm version, but as yet testing and development is still underway. However, as Will Jackson, director of Engineered Arts, points out: ‘For obvious reasons, we are very interested in small diameter fluidic muscles - they would make great RoboThespian fingers! For this type of non-industrial application, involving relatively low duty cycles, we could probably live with the performance figures that Festo is already achieving, so we're keen to participate in the product evaluation process. In fact, this degree of co-operation typifies our experience with Festo - we have enjoyed superb service from the company, all the way along the line. Their technical support is second to none, their local representative is almost part of our team, and their products are always delivered on time and to budget.’

The first interactive RoboThespian was installed at the Goonhilly Future World exhibition in Cornwall in March 2008. It features a new remote control console fitted with a 19” touch-sensitive screen, linked to the robot via an industry-standard LAN. The control software employs an advanced graphical user interface with 'drag and drop' editing facilities, enabling visitors to create their own movement sequences using a virtual on-screen robot, and to then watch them being performed live by RoboThespian.

Engineered Arts claims it is already seeing considerable interest in RoboThespian from commercial organisations and businesses. The company recently installed a robot at the newly modernised Industrion Science Park in Kerkrade in the Netherlands - where of course it is obliged to speak fluent Dutch and German - as well as a Spanish-speaking model at the Parque de las Ciencias open-air museum in Granada, Spain. Engineered Arts is also in the process of commissioning a robot for the Copernicus Science Centre in Warsaw, Poland.

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