Researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have built and programmed a robot that is capable of assembling an IKEA chair from its factory-manufactured parts. Generally, this isn’t something that is worth mentioning—robots built objects all the time on assembly lines. However, this robot is programmed for problem solving, not for completing a specific pre-assigned task.
This robot has to do what many humans also have to do when faced with a puzzle: solve a problem. This is significant because many of the large problems with modern robotics and, hence, robots, are based in human problem-solving ability. While humans can cope with messy, disordered and cluttered environments easily, robots cannot cope with these conditions. Along with this, robots lack the extremely fine motor control that most humans have.
The robot that has been designed to assemble furniture has two arms equipped with grips that allow it to grab objects. It is capable of six-axis motion, meaning that it can move linearly in three directions and rotate in an additional three directions. It has force sensors that determine grip strength and how hard it is pushing. Finally, the robot also has a visual system that can give it feedback on what it is doing.
Part of the challenge of the robot building this chair is that many of the components of the chair are difficult for the robot to find, mostly because the sizes of the components are outside of its visual limits. However, this seems to be an equipment limitation, not that of a learning failure on the robot’s part.
Its creators, Francisco Suarez-Ruiz and Quang-Cuong Pham, have worked around these limitations by coding in a set of patterns. The robot ‘checks’ its location and ‘scans’ a surface in order to map it physically and understand where the components need to be placed.
Overall, robots are still very far from being able to solve problems on the same levels as humans. Though this may be relieving for some, it is important to note that robots are still capable of problem solving. This implies that, in the nearby future, robots may be able to do more than just struggle with basic furniture; they may be able to help humans out as functioning members of society.