Robotic Arms: Starting a Challenging BEng Project

Robot snapshot

For my 3rd year BEng project, I am building a Master-Slave robotic arm that can be used for remote surgery/paramedical applications. Essentially, that means that I am building a robot arm (the slave arm) that a human being can directly control using a control arm (the master arm). The slave arm mirrors the movements of the master arm, which means it can perform complex motions without needing loads of programming and planning before hand – that is all done in an instant in the human brain. It’s kind of like that movie Real Steel, which aside from not being as bad as you might think (still not great, though), accurately summarises the argument behind master-slave technology.

The potential applications are pretty wide (aside from creating boxing robots, which would be awesome). Essentially, it just allows a human being to sort-of-directly interact with things they either aren’t strong enough to move or would rather avoid. That can mean anything from a battlefield, a nuclear reactor or outer space.

I got into this project because by the end of my 2nd year of doing mechanical engineering at Queen Mary, I had made up my mind that I wanted to get into control engineering. I’ve always been fascinated by how machines are able to react to their environment, either by direct command or through a sensor. Control engineering, specifically robotics, seemed to me to be the best way to work in that field and still be able to build stuff.

I spoke to my personal tutor, who is now my project supervisor, and he suggested looking into master-slave technology. I did and decided to build a simple rig at home using what I had learnt about servo motors in my second year instrumentation module (pictured above). I used an Arduino to read sensors on a master arm and relay signals to the servos in the slave arm so that their positions would match. Here is a video of it working: http://youtu.be/s1gio-IVdDc.

Now the challenge is to improve on the mechanical design and create a controller for it such that it can do something useful.  That means I need to put my own controller on it, which is the stage I am currently at in my project. The university have been really supportive of the project. They even extended the standard budget which I am extremely grateful for. Now it’s just a matter of hard work getting the thing up and running.

In my next post, I’ll give you some more details about how my project has been so far and where I am at the moment.

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