Industrial robots have been around for the better part of the last sixty years, but until recently most took days to program and had to be cordoned off to prevent injuring their human coworkers. That's beginning to change thanks to smarter robots, like those developed by Universal Robots, a Danish company who's technology – already prevalent in Europe – has been hailed "the world's most innovative robot" by the International Federation of Robotics and the IEEE.
Universal Robots' manufacturing arms can operate in the vicinity of people thanks to a patented technology which measures the electrical current in each joint that controls the arm's movement. If the arm collides with anything with a force of 150 Newtons (approximately 15 kg), it automatically comes to a complete stop – unlike traditional robots which would blindly follow through. This means only about 20 percent of companies using the arms required any sort of safety shielding.
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Additionally, the arms can be easily programmed using an intuitive graphical user interface on the attached tablet, and a hands-on teaching function – similar to the system adopted by Rethink Robotics' recently-unveiled Baxter robot. These innovations dramatically reduce the initial set-up time, which traditionally takes a specialized team of programmers several days, to just a few hours. Another similarity with Baxter is its low price of entry, making the arms accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises.
Though the US$48,500 dollar price tag is less than half that of typical installations, it is still double Rethink Robotics' solution. And that only includes one arm, where Baxter has two (Universal Robot does offer a dual-armed set-up, but that costs more). Still, the UR5 and UR10 arms can be quickly moved from one location to another, and can lift 5 kg (11 pounds) and 10 kg (22 pounds) respectively, whereas Baxter is only able to lift 2.2 kg (5 pounds). It's a trade-off that could make all the difference to smaller shops.
The company will soon begin taking orders in the U.K. and the U.S., having received safety certifications for both territories. You can watch the company's arm picking and placing objects in the following video.