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Learn Robotics and Amuse Office Mates With uArm

Learn Robotics and Amuse Office Mates With uArm

Who wouldn't want to stick a robotic arm to the surface of a desk and watch it playfully move things around? It would be a step above a ball clacker and just as mesmerizing, right? Suggestions of actual handy things the uArm could do may be in short supply right now, but Kickstarter fans love it -- and we're just betting that once it lands on some desktops, all heck will break loose.

By Chris Maxcer
01/28/14 5:00 AM PT

UFactory's uArm, which is an Arduino-powered 4-axis parallel-mechanism robot arm created for personal desktop use, has blown past its US$5,000 funding goal on Kickstarter with more than a month to go.

Clearly, uArm has struck a nerve, generating more than $60,000 in pledges in just a handful of days.

For those who aren't familiar with robotic arms -- most of the world, it's safe to say -- the uArm is modeled after the ABB industrial PalletPack robot arm IRB460. However, the uArm is smaller, made of wood or acrylic, and a lot less expensive.

As for size and shape, the uArm features a suction-cup base that will adhere to your desk. It will swivel, move up and down, and articulate pinchers at the end of the arm. It also features a vacuum-powered suction cup that can be used to pick up items as heavy as a full 12-ounce can of soda.

How Do You Control the uArm?

Right now, UFactory has developed a Windows-based application that lets you control the uArm with a keyboard or mouse. In addition, UFactory is working to develop Android and iOS apps that could let you control uArm via Bluetooth.

As for programming the uArm, UFactory has written an Arduino library specifically for controlling the uArm, letting you program it directly with Arduino IDE by calling different functions to move the uArm into various positions.

What Can You Do With the uArm?

For most people -- or kids interested in learning robotics -- the easiest way to use a uArm is through a mouse, which means you can articulate the arm to move around your desk and pick things up or put them down. While many people enjoy the vaguely mesmerizing effect of watching a robotic arm move in a precise series of articulating steps, picking up random desktop objects hardly seems worthy of a robotic assistant.

If I wanted to use a uArm to retrieve a stapler and place it in front of me, the uArm is not more efficient or faster than my own arm. If the uArm is for an able-bodied person with two working human arms, it's a glorified toy -- albeit potentially a learning toy.

In one use case highlighted by UFactory, you could use the suction cup attachment of uArm to pick up a business card and hand it to a potential customer. Another use case is outfitting the end of the uArm with a light, turning it into the coolest desktop lamp ever.

A strong mechanical imagination, it turns out, might be a prerequisite for those planning on backing the uArm project.

Materials and Pledge Options

The uArm starts at $69 for an Acrylic (or Wood) Mechanical Kit, which contains the complete mechanical parts -- the laser cut arms, the screws, bearings, etc. -- but not the servos or electronic modules.

For $185, you can choose the Acrylic (or Wood) Gripper Kit, which includes the mechanical parts as well as three servos, a micro servo, an Arduino-compatible board, cables and a power supply. This kit contains everything you need to build your own robotic arm -- and yes, assembly is required.

For $219, you get the Suction Cup Kit option, but you might as well bump it up to $229 and get both the Gripper and Suction Cup ends. Ramping up to $279 and above, you can get fully assembled uArms, engraved, and ready to move about with demo code already programmed in.

Interestingly, after the Kickstarter campaign is over, UFactory intends to make uArm completely open source, letting enthusiasts build their own arms.

Risks and Challenges

UFactory has seven prototypes created and is optimizing the design, it said. It also has a factory lined up to laser-cut the parts. It's a little unclear as to when, exactly, the full remote-control abilities will be delivered -- PC, Mac, and smartphones with the first shipment? Or added later? UFactory also has indicated it's interested in producing a next-generation model out of metal with a more accurate stepper motor. Hard to say when, though.

Meanwhile, if you've been wanting to mess around with robotics, and you're intrigued by the possibilities for programming an arm to manipulate items or push buttons on your desk, UFactory plans to ship the first kits in May.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com.

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