Mobile robotics and AI is helping scientists carry on essential research during physical distancing

The Royal Society of Chemistry, based out of Liverpool University, has developed a so-called robot scientist using a mobile robot from KUKA which has allowed research and development to continue during these socially distanced C-19 times.

The KMR iiwa, a flexible and autonomous navigation platform equipped with an LBR iiwa sensitive robot, is designed to be instrumental in maintaining vital research and development processes during a time when social distancing prevents developers from working on the premises.

The development of this robot has been hailed as ‘a new digital age for science’ by the organisation, as the robot has continued to operate throughout lockdown, undertaking a series of tests on the behaviour of solar cells. It could, according to Prof Andy Cooper, Materials Scientist at Liverpool University, also be used in the fight against COVID-19.

Fewer human scientists can work in their labs presently, due to current social distancing measures. Research can continue however at the facility as the robot performs autonomous testing routines across several designated workstations within the laboratory. The navigation between each station, and the task undertaken when there, is dictated by a series of AI algorithms and advanced computing technologies, dependent upon each test result.

An identical process, if undertaken by manual means would incorporate far fewer variables. The robot is essentially allowing the artificial intelligence to produce many more variables (variations in testing data) as it can undertake tests far more quickly than a human. As it is also able to operate 24/7, with cycle breaks only to visit the floor charging dock, many more variables can be produced - essentially the programmable researcher learns from its results to constantly refine its experiments.

Dr Benjamin Burger, one of the developers at the University, says the robot has transformed the speed at which he could carry out research. “It can easily go through thousands of samples, so it frees up my time to focus on innovation and new solutions.”

The autonomous, mobile robot is fully HRC compatible (human robot collaboration). A combination of the sensitive LBR iiwa lightweight and the location-independent and highly flexible KMR (KUKA mobile robot). Seven special joint torque sensors on each axis of the LBR iiwa make it highly sensitive to its environment, and a compliant gripper enables it to execute the many delicate tasks within the laboratory, such as the movement/placement of numerous vials in between testing stations.

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