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Defusing A Bomb With A Joystick Isn’t Easy, So Pittsburgh Company Creates Scale Robotic Arm

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA
RE2 engineer Aaron Nicely remotely controls a set of arms it sells to the U.S. Department of Defense for use on bomb disposal robots.

RE2 Robotics first spun out of Carnegie Mellon University in 2001 to build off-road vehicles for the U.S. Department of Defense, but now its researchers are working to develop the next generation of robotic arms.

The 40 people who work at the Lawrenceville-based company now focus on building arms for robots used to defuse improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

“These are robotic arms that are placed on things that move through the world,” said the company’s president, Jorgen Pedersen. “A robot can perceive the world, it can move through the world but when it’s time to interact with the world, that’s where we come in.”

Pedersen said RE2 is a leader in “mobile manipulators,” and their work is more complicated than simply re-purposing robotic arms used in industrial settings.

Credit Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
RE2 Robotics president and CEO Jorgen Pedersen stands under the company's motto at its Lawrenceville office.

“[The arm] has to be very lightweight. It has to be compact. It has to be power-efficient,” he said. “Because it has to fit on a small robot that’s running off of a battery.”

As the company improved the weight-to-power ratio, it started to work on building a better control system.

Robotic arms are usually controlled using joysticks or Xbox-type controllers. Pedersen said it takes hours of training and practice to use those systems and they consume a big part of the operator’s attention – attention that could be focused on defusing the bomb. 

So, RE2 created a controller that is a scale model of the robotic arm.

“However you move the scale model, that’s exactly what the real system … does,” Pedersen said. “There’s no thought process. All you have to do is move your arm and the thing does what you just did.”

The arm RE2 most often sells to the government has either five degrees of freedom, or directions of motion. The human arm has seven degrees of freedom. The manipulator, or hand, at the end of the arm most often has two fingers, but Pedersen said more can be added.

The company also makes an arm that has 16 degrees of freedom and models that give force feedback, allowing the user to feel how much resistance is being experienced by the robotic arm.

Those upgrades add cost, which Pedersen said must be weighed on a project-by-project basis.

“Having force feedback for some markets is absolutely critical and if those markets can afford that they’ll use it,” Pedersen said. “The police departments and bomb squads… don’t have large budgets so you have to come up with cost effective solutions for them as well.”

The fact that a small company like RE2 is even able to land government robotics projects speaks to changes in the way the department of defense, and the industry in general, is being to approach large projects.

Rather than contracting with one company to design the entire system, it is standardizing points of interconnectivity, much like USB technology allows users to hook any number of devices to a computer.

“You can have someone who is really good at making a chassis,” Pedersen said. “And you can have another person who is really good at making mobile robotic arms, like RE2, and another company that makes sensors and they all just come together and they agree on this one standard.”

RE2 is looking to move into building and selling more consumer-focused products. It’s currently working on robotic arms that could help people who use wheelchairs or those receiving in-home medical care to get from one bed or chair and into another.

Pedersen said he is also looking to grow the Lawrenceville office with a few new engineers.

In This Week’s Tech Headlines:

  • Carnegie Mellon University is working with Intel Corporation to create cloud-based technologies that could help analyze the rapidly increasing number of videos posted online. Videos cannot be as easily searched as text-based material. However, CMU associate professor of computer science David Andersen calls online “one of the richest data sources we have.” He said amazing progress is being made at analyzing and searching images, thanks to machine learning, but the approaches that work so well in still images don’t scale to video.
  • At its annual shareholders’ meeting, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon told employees they should not fear increasing automation in the industry. But at the same meeting he said the company may have reached an employment peak. The word comes as the retail industry faces challenges created by shoppers continuing to favor online purchases. A report conducted by the Cornerstone Capital Group commissioned by the Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute, says 6 to 7.5 million U.S. retail jobs could be wiped out in the coming years because of the use of technology.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.