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Engineering research team earns prestigious NSF award to improve co-robot safety

Collaborative robots, or co-robots, are designed to work alongside their human counterparts, enabling us to do our jobs better, but current technology lacks the safety needed for practical use. New research at Ohio State aims to offer a safe solution.

Mechanical and Aerospace Proposed Shape Morphing Arm Robotic (SMART) manipulators Proposed Shape Morphing Arm Robotic (SMART) manipulators are designed to be inherently safe. Their arms are made of smart material composite beams highly compliant at high speeds for maximum safety and stiff at low speeds for maximum control performance. Engineering Associate Professor Haijun Su has received a $977,778 award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support research that will significantly improve the design of safe co-robotic systems, benefiting industries such as health care, automotive, construction and the military. Part of NSF’s National Robotics Initiative (NRI) to accelerate the use of co-robots in the United States, the award will support Su’s research over a span of three years.

“Safety has been a major concern and a technical barrier of co-robots for their applications to industries,” said Su, who serves as principal investigator of the study and is director of Ohio State’s Design Innovation and Simulations Laboratory. “This award will address this technical challenge through an interdisciplinary approach that integrates experts in three fields: compliant mechanism design, smart materials and advanced control.” Honda R&D Chair Marcelo Dapino and Professor Junmin Wang are co-principal investigators.

The award, “Shape Morphing Arm Robotic (SMART) Manipulators for Simultaneous Safe Human-Robot Interaction and High Performance in Manufacturing” is the only NRI award given to Ohio State and one of just three awards presented in the State of Ohio.

Using shape morphing robotic manipulators, the research team’s co-robots are designed to be inherently safe by making their links flexible during motion. The upper and lower arms of the manipulators can change their stiffness in real-time by simple smart material actuators. The arms are relatively stiff at low speeds for maximum performance and highly flexible at high speeds for maximum safety. When a collision occurs, the flexible link deflects to limit the impact to the human operator. At low speeds, the flexible link morphs to high stiffness mode for maximum positioning accuracy.

“We hope this award will strengthen Ohio State’s presence in the robotics field,” noted Su.

The purpose of the National Robotics Initiative is to support the development of the next generation of robotics, advance the capability and usability of such systems and artifacts, and encourage existing and new communities to focus on innovative application areas. It will address the entire lifecycle from fundamental research and development to manufacturing and deployment.

Innovative robotics research and applications emphasizing the realization of such co-robots working in symbiotic relationships with human partners is supported by multiple agencies of the federal government including the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).

contributed by Dept. of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering