News Article

Affordable Assisted Living Enabled Through Mobile Dexterity: the Barrett WAM™ arm
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Featured firm in this article: Barrett Technology Inc of Newton, MA

We all grow older. At some point, age, injury or disease create challenges for many in accomplishing such basic tasks as preparing meals, bathing, and using the toilet. Consider for a moment how it might feel to rely on hired help to lower you to a toilet seat. The challenge to one's independence and dignity* is enormous.

However, there is no loss of dignity if you command a robot to extend an arm to secure your balance. The robot is a sophisticated tool and, like a car, is an extension of the person.

Since it is not economically feasible to have different robotic manipulators in each room of a house, the concept of mobile manipulation is essential. Until recently, through, the notion of mobile manipulation was impractical. Although there are several mobile platforms available today, robotic arms are poorly designed for mobile manipulation. They have high moving inertia that can tip a mobile platform; generate bone-breaking forces, do badly in the face of a collision because their joints are not adequately backdrivable, and require a substantial volume of support electronics stored in a "controller cabinet" that rival the size and mass of the robot itself. Most importantly, these robots draw an order of magnitude too much power to be practical and the type of power they require is generally incompatible with the variable-DC reality of batteries that jump from deep discharge to high charging voltage once each charge cycle.

Barrett's engineers have spent over 20 years overcoming these obstacles in the design of the WAM™ arm and its array of support technologies, like its ultra-miniature, ultra-power-efficient Puck controller (patents pending worldwide).

The fundamental cost of the WAM™ in anticipated quantities would be less than that for any conventional geared or harmonic-drive robot because of the fundamental simplicity of the cable drives and Puck servoelectronics. And the ability to finance the household purchase of a mobile manipulator is not far fetched for any cost less than ~US$50,000 by leveraging the car-financing model with monthly payments of a few hundred dollars. In many ways a household mobile-manipulator is a natural follow-on from owning a car. Furthermore, the need for living assistance comes at the same point in life when continued use of a car becomes hazardous, so there is a natural trade-up in mobility tools.

* The importance of dignity came to Barrett by way of Joseph Engelberger in the 1990s. Joseph Engelberger is the father of the robotics industry.