This week’s news story sees Squishy Robotics and its soft landing robot transitioning from the NASA Moon project to assisting first responders on Earth; then how Locus Robotics leverages the LocusBots product line to offer a new-age solution for the growing demands of warehouses; then China’s newly developed robot-assisted laparoscopic surgery system is slated to compete with industry leader Intuitive Robotics using 3D glasses instead of traditional monitors and hoods; and lastly, why have robots been so slow to disrupt the garment industry?
“What is going on?” Ask Squishy Robotics
In a disaster scenario, situational awareness, or “What happened?” in disaster areas, information is often very difficult or impossible to obtain.
Squishy Robotics (based in Berkeley, CA), spin-off of a project originally funded by NASA (2014) to develop new ways of landing rovers and other types of equipment on the Moon, have produced robots for use by first responders in disaster situations that provide situational awareness, where no one has to take risks. It also delivers critical information in the field much more quickly than first responders can.
Berkeley researcher Alice Agogino’s first brainchild for a $500,000 NASA grant posed the question: Why not make the robot itself a landing gear? That way, there’s no need for a separate lander to bring the rover to the surface. Answering that fundamental question is how he developed his startup, Squishy Robotics.
As Agogino recalls: “We thought, wow, if we can do this on the Moon, we should be able to do it on planet Earth and save some lives.”
The idea is to make a skeleton of the rods and elastic cord in the shape of a ball, based on the design principle of tension integrity, or “tension”. The term itself was coined by Buckminster Fuller as a portmanteau of “tension” and “integrity” in 1955.
Functionally, the spherical robot frame is dropped from the drone into disaster situations or even rescue situations that are difficult for first responders to access. The robot’s sensors and other information-gathering instruments will be in the center of the robot, and when dropped, the impact force will spread across the frame, keeping vital loads safe.
Locus Robotics upgrades the AMR fleet
AMR providers to the logistics and e-commerce industries have moved quickly to expand their mobile robot platforms and operational software to accommodate the increasingly rapid churn and diverse warehouse logistics.
Not to increase the risk of being bypassed by an industry that is already in a high position and accelerating to meet the huge demands of e-commerce.
Based in Massachusetts Robotics Locussupplier of highly successful LocusBots, has been building to meet those needs since 2021 when it acquired Waypoint Robotics. Heavyweight chassis, larger form factor, and increased capabilities of Locus Vector and Max (rebranded from Waypoint) along with earlier releases Locus origincreated the company’s new product line, recently introduced for the EU in Amsterdam Delivering the 2023 conference held June 7-8.
Smart AMR is the wave of the future and Locus now has three. Locus DHL Supply Chain customers will see Locus Origin deployed to its 1,500 warehouses and distribution centers by the end of 2023, Locus claims.
“We are excited to showcase our latest technology innovations at Deliver 2023 to our global and European customers,” said Rick Faulk, CEO of Locus Robotics. “Together with our state-of-the-art LocusONE Warehouse Automation Platform, we are changing the way warehouses operate.”
3D glasses for China’s newly launched surgical robot
The world is heading in that direction minimally invasive surgical procedure. And surgical robots are envisioned to become the platform of choice to provide safer, minimally invasive surgeries with significantly less postoperative trauma.
Although more than a dozen developers have marketed, or are in the process of marketing the surgical robot, the US-based da Vinci Intuitive Surgical robot has been the crown jewel of surgery since its debut in 2009, even with a system of over $2.5 million, plus more than million dollars in parts and supplies each year. Now, however, competitors from the EU (Versius Surgical Robotic System) and, more recently, China are challenging the Intuitive’s dominance.
Weigao Groupheadquartered in Weihai, Shandong province, has become the first Chinese developer of robotic-assisted laparoscopic surgery systems (2021). “Currently we have 20 units in the hospital for clinical research engaged in various surgeries, such as urological, liver and thoracic procedures,” said Wang Bingqiang, general manager of the Weigao Group’s medical instruments division. “Our robotic system will be sold for general surgical use from June (2023).”
With 20 systems in use, Weigao still has a long way to go to even begin to compete with the more than 6,000 da Vinci systems Intuitive deploys worldwide. According to Fosun International Securities, of the 189 robot-assisted laparoscopic surgical systems currently used in China (almost 5% of the world market), Intuitive has almost 100% share.
Unique among robotic surgical systems, the Weigao surgical robot is operated using 3D glasses—rather than the standard monitors and hoods used by others—which the company says reduces doctor fatigue. “Doctors can also more easily communicate with other doctors and nurses in the operating room,” Wang added.
Lazy robots disrupt the garment industry
There aren’t too many industries these days that robotics is difficult to interfere with, but the garment industry seems to be one that is particularly elusive.
However, there is a fortune awaiting those who succeed. Revenue in the clothing/garment market for 2023 is $343 billion! Automating even a small part of an industry can save billions in productivity gains and employ tens of thousands of robots, especially in sewing clothes together.
There are 10-20 different steps needed to make a simple t-shirt; 70-80 for long sleeve shirts.
Although laser cutting of fabrics has spread throughout garment manufacturing, laser cut pieces still need to be joined into finished pieces, and therein lies a problem for robots. Human hands are still relied upon for finishing.
Based in Germany Robot textiles is one of several companies trying to bring more automation to garment manufacturing.
“Textile researcher at RWTH Aachen University Germany estimate that in manufacturing a piece of clothing, handling time — as distinct from the cutting or sewing steps — accounts for about 80% of production time and about 80% of manufacturing costs.”
The Robottextile fabric-sorting work cell uses a standard KUKA Scara robot with a working diameter of 1600mm and a payload of 5kg (cobots are also possible). Depending on layout and general conditions, cycle times of 2 to 4 seconds per layer of fabric are possible.
But make no mistake, the bells are ringing for manual labor in the garment business. However, for now, Asian hands still dress the majority of people around the world.
The video below showcases the daunting challenges automation faces.