Low-cost robotic joint module evolved from student sponsorship

A company best known for plastic bearings and cabling products is moving into a completely new area following its involvement with a student robotics challenge.

Robolink a multi-axis joint for humanoid robots and lightweight automation applications, is being launched commercially by Northamptonshire-based Igus UK.

A complete modular system, Robolink combines enormous design freedom with simplicity and is particularly well-suited where masses are to be kept as low as possible. The design and development of Robolink is testament to how Igus supports its customers in areas that it hasn’t typically been associated and won the renowned ‘iF product design award 2011’.

“This radical departure from the usual Igus product portfolio came about when we sponsored a team in the Robot football World Cup (RoboCup) from 2006-2008,” Igus UK director Justin Leonard told E&T. “RoboCup attracts teams of engineers and computer scientists from around the globe, where they pit their wits against each other in the football-field of robotics and artificial intelligence. What we could offer our team was our expertise in low-friction plastic for joints.”

At the heart of the Robolink modular system are the lightweight, maintenance and corrosion-free joints with tribologically optimised plastic bearings that are driven via cables and can rotate and swivel freely. Several units can be connected to carry out complex movements.

“The elasticity, light weight and possibility of a central drive system are a real innovation in the field of low-cost robotics,” Leonard said.

Space-saving drive units are available in different performance classes, with four or five drive motors in a housing. In addition, an individually configurable drive disc is available that can be attached to a wide range of different motor or gear shafts and then connected to the wear-resistant cables. Simple control software is in development to intuitively program and store all the movements of a 4-axis jointed arm.

Over the last two years, Igus provided beta-testers with Robolink prototypes for a wide range of trial applications; these ranged from maritime robots for use with underwater vehicles, through to mobile robots on the ground, used for handling contaminated or explosive materials. Other examples include humanoid robots, camera guidance equipment and systems for facilitating interaction between man and machine. Further trials were carried out in the medical industry, as well as in the field of animatronics.

During the test phase the product received a German IF award for industrial design.

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