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Robot arm `walks` like a caterpillar

01 September, 2004

Robot arm `walks` like a caterpillar

A British engineer has developed a double-ended robotic arm that can attach itself, at either end, to docking stations that provide it with power and control signals. The patented Flexibot arm can "walk" from one docking station to the next, in a similar way to a caterpillar, providing extreme flexibility.

The arm`s inventor, Professor Mike Topping of Staffordshire University and Rehab Robotics, believes that the Flexibot could undertake tasks that cannot currently be performed by robots, or need several different robots.

The arm (shown above with a docking station on the left) is scalable. A prototype offering five degrees of freedom and a payload of 5kg has been built and tested, but smaller and larger versions are possible. The prototype has been designed to help people with severe disabilities to perform tasks such as eating, drinking and applying make-up. It is accurate to within 0.1mm.

Industrial versions could transfer themselves from workcells to automated guided vehicles to carry out work at remote locations. Alternatively, an AGV could transport them to workcells elsewhere in a plant.

The arms can work independently, or with other Flexibot or conventional robots. For example, a heavy-duty Flexibot with five degrees of freedom, could pick and place heavy components for a nine-degrees-of-freedom arm carrying out more intricate assembly tasks in the same cell.

The arms can use their own grippers to perform tasks, or can pick up specialised end-effectors. They can be fitted with a variety of sensors or vision systems to detect positions and movements. Two Flexibot arms can be linked together to increase the system`s reach and the size of its work area.

Staffordshire University has appointed an intellectual property agency, Davidson`s, to take the invention to the next stage of its commercial development.

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