Could direct drive actuators push robots into the mainstream?

Genesis Robotics has patented a new type of actuator that eliminates the need for a gearbox.

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(Image: Genesis Robotics)

Despite major advancements in robotics and the huge potential it has to make our lives easier, robots are still mostly stuck in industrial settings. We have seen a few robots enter homes, healthcare, and other work settings, but for the most part, they are still a novelty. In order for robots to become as ubiquitous as the other technology that consumers have recently embraced, two big problems still need to be addressed: Safety and cost. One specific mechanical part -- the actuator -- could be the catalyst that starts the robotics revolution we've been waiting for.

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An actuator is the part of a robot that converts electrical energy into motion. Altogether, actuators make up around 30 percent of the cost of a robot, so roboticists have spent decades trying to improve the design. A Canadian Company called Genesis Robotics has now made a breakthrough with a new type of actuator called LiveDrive.

"We see robotics being in a very similar place to where the personal computer was in the 80s or early 90s," Mike Hilton, CEO of Genesis Robotics tells us. While computers were once too expensive for all but a few companies, eventually there was a turning point where computers became affordable enough to move into not only new businesses but also homes.

Hilton says, "We see a similar trend starting to emerge with robotics. Something that has been a very useful tool for improving the quality of production in a factory could now become something that could help out in a hospital, a school, factories and warehouses, military scenarios, and give the aging population more independence."

A traditional actuator is a combination of an electric motor and a gearbox. Electric motors are good at spinning quickly, but they don't have enough lifting power, so a gearbox is added in order to make the robot's limbs powerful enough to be useful. Unfortunately, gears are high maintenance and expensive.

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(Image: USPTO/Mike Hilton)

The roboticists at Genesis Robotics have invented a direct drive actuator that has the same torque and lifting power as a traditional actuator, but without the need for the pricey gearbox. The idea is similar to the impressive gearless robots that we have seen from Ghost Robotics, but on an industrial scale. In the past month, Genesis received two allowances for patents on the design of its direct drive actuator.

Just like all electric motors, LiveDrive is a combination of copper coils and magnets, but it has a unique design that dramatically increases the magnetic force. Hilton explains, "We have a custom arrangement for the magnets and the type of material that the magnets are embedded in that allows us to amplify the magnetic force of those magnets." As a result, the copper coil piece of the motor and the magnetic portion are drawn together by 2,000 pounds of magnetic force. This makes the actuator powerful enough to ditch the gearbox.

This new gearless actuator can help bring down the cost of existing robot designs, but it will also make entirely new designs possible. It's not just cheaper -- the gearless actuator is also thin and scalable. LiveDrive can range in size from less than half an inch to around 30 inches, but the parts can also stack to amplify the power of the actuator.

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Most importantly, if robots are going to venture outside of structured industrial environments, they absolutely have to be safe. The new design addresses some safety concerns by making control mechanisms more precise. When you stop a traditional actuator, the gears keep moving for a moment. So, even if robots are loaded with sensors and collision avoidance technology, there will be a mechanical delay. "

"There's a whole line of robotic capability that is just in its infancy, and the right actuator -- with the right cost point, with the right safety capabilities - could really be the vehicle that allows us to take robots from the factory into the home," Hilton says.

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