Robotic Assembly by Intelligent Precision Jigging Robots

Assembly robots have found practical use on assembly lines for decades, predictably performing the same routine motions in a streamlined process that has made advanced technology cheap and widely available. Outside of the assembly line, robotic assembly has never advanced past the prototype and toy problem phase.

Robots that can replace humans on construction projects have long been desired, but progress toward that goal has been limited. One notable application is construction in hazardous environments that humans cannot easily access. Making this practical requires the intersection of numerous subfields, including sensor fusion, distributed algorithms, motion planning, error detection and correction, and sequence planning. Construction calls for the ability to handle a wide range of issues, including cutting and shaping parts as needed, addressing assembly mistakes, distributing tasks to specialized agents, and handling unexpected events. Accuracy requirements call for sensors and optimal estimation algorithms, especially when an assembly does not consist of interlocking, self-correcting linkages. Complex and expensive robots that can handle all tasks are particularly risky, as the loss of one can be devastating. Reliance on pre-made, precisely machined parts can also lead to failure if just one unique part breaks. Often, the attachment of a subassembly requires several agents coordinating, for example, to hold up and maneuver large parts.

Intelligent Precision Jigging Robots

To solve this, I introduced Intelligent Precision Jigging Robots (IPJRs) as a solution. Intelligent Precision Jigging Robots are robots that can precisely hold a pose between disconnected parts (in welding, this is known as jigging), enabling an external agent (such as a robotic arm) to permanently bond the parts. IPJRs adjust the distances between the parts using highly precise actuators and precise sensors for distance measurement. IPJRs free the external agents from having a high precision requirement, reducing the complexity of the external agent. A set of IPJRs and external agents performing assembly are individually simpler than an all-purpose assembly robot, thus they can be made more inexpensively, enabling robustness.

IPJRs attach to nodes and position a strut of variable length between them.
IPJRs attach to nodes and position a strut of variable length between them. This repeats cell by cell until the structure is finished.
NASA - James Webb Space Telescope (left), 20 meter far-infrared concept.
NASA – James Webb Space Telescope (left), 20 meter far-infrared concept (right).

My thesis research focused on methods to enable the cheap construction of space telescopes using only raw/stock materials by distributed robots. Space telescopes, through their stringent precision requirements, represent a superset of truss requirements, so that anything shown to work on telescope assembly should work on other kinds of structures.

Prototype 1: 2D Truss Assembly One Cell At a Time

Prototype 1 was a proof of concept prototype developed shortly after the commencement of my research. I began designing the prototype while a Visiting Fellow at Harvard with with the Self-Organizing Systems Research Group in the summer of 2012, and continued through the fall.

Prototype 1 triangle with glue gun and wooden dowels.
Prototype 1 triangle with glue gun and wooden dowels.
Large irregular ring made by Prototype 1 in December 2012.
Large irregular ring made by Prototype 1 in December 2012.

The three IPJRs were arranged in a triangle controlled by a single Arduino, and each edge’s length was adjusted by a Firgelli L16 actuator. The actuators provided length measurements via an onboard potentiometer, which was used to guide a rudimentary controller. When actuated, the triangle positioned three wooden nodes to a precision of 0.5mm, and an external welding agent (me, with a glue gun) bonded a wooden strut between the nodes. I ran several trials of a square, and one of a large irregular ring, to show that the mean error in node-to-node distance was about 0.5mm.

Prototype 2: 2D High Precision Assembly at Langley Research Center

Prototype 2 was built to demonstrate telescope truss assembly using materials and hardware similar to what would be used in a flight mission. The second IPJR prototype was designed to align the tops of the node posts (where a mirror would be attached) to within 5 microns of a set length in the range of 0.987 to 1.013 meters. It used Ultra Motion D-Series linear actuators with 7.9 micron steps and a 2 inch stroke length. To test repeatability and to calibrate, each edge had a Keyence IL-030 laser distance sensor to sense the length of the IPJR edge by measuring the extension of the Ultra Motion actuator. The IL-030 has a repeatability of 1 micron, but a small operational range of 20-45 mm, which limited the range of the IPJR.

The IPJR was a triangle consisting of three identical edges. Each edge is a mechanical linkage between two components, the main body and the node gripper module. The main body of each edge was a composite tube, a material chosen for its favorable thermal expansion properties over most metals. An Ultra Motion actuator extended the node gripping module away from the main body. Two rails with bearings were used to prevent bending moments on the Ultra Motion actuators, which can cause them to fail under lateral loads of just 13 Newtons.

The node gripping module consisted of a funnel used for guiding a node post while the IPJR is being lowered onto the canister, a target plate for capturing node posts precisely, and a stepper motor to push the node post into the target plate. The IL-030, attached to the main body, measured the edge’s extension by measuring its distance to the target plate. Attached to the tube were two grippers for lifting and holding the struts. To eliminate free play within the entire IPJR, springs were attached between the lifting plate posts, imposing a compressive force on each edge.

The LSMS prepares to weld a strut to the center node.
The LSMS prepares to weld a strut to the center node.

The Lightweight Surface Manipulation System (LSMS) is a long-reach manipulator designed by my colleagues at Langley Research Center to operate on planetary surfaces, intended to manipulate large objects in preparation for a manned landing. It is 4.25 meters tall and has a reach of 8.5 meters. An off-the-shelf arc welding gun was integrated into an end effector attached to the LSMS wrist. A lifting plate end effector gave the LSMS the ability to lift the IPJR by grasping three attachment points on the IPJR. The limited maneuverability of the LSMS required a turntable to provide the final degree of freedom necessary for controlled placement of the IPJR and the welding gun. The canister presented new struts and nodes for the IPJR to capture while the LSMS positioned the IPJR over the canister.

The second prototype constructed a 2D truss made of 7 titanium nodes and 12 titanium struts, arranged in a hexagonal lattice of six cells, representing a simplified optical bench for a space telescope. The cells were nominally equilateral triangles with a node-to-node distance of 1.002 meters. The assembly experiment took place in September 2013.

Prototype 2 rests on completed structure.
Prototype 2 rests on completed structure.

The demonstration of truss assembly and welding by robotic agents was considered a complete success. However, the precision of the final structure did not meet the precision of the assembly hardware; the node positions ranged in error from 3.2 to 5.0 mm. I decided that the third and final prototype needed to have an active system for detecting and correcting errors during assembly.

Prototype 3: 3D Truss Assembly with Error Detection and Correction
A Prototype 3 IPJR, shown attached to a strut between two nodes.
A Prototype 3 IPJR, shown attached to a strut between two nodes.

Prototype 3 was designed to perform repeatable 3D assembly experiments using disconnected IPJRs (that is, not arranged in prebuilt triangles as with the previous two prototypes) and an error detection and correction algorithm. Struts were made of 30 inch telescoping aluminum rods, 1/4 inch and 7/32 inch diameter, lockable by shaft collars. At each end were neodymium magnets that connected to 1.5 inch steel node balls.

A node ball with numerous struts attached by neodymium magnets.
A node ball with numerous struts attached by neodymium magnets.

I made 5 IPJRs, but only needed 3 at a time; the others were backups. Each IPJR was an autonomous robot, consisting of a Raspberry Pi Model B for high level algorithmic control and communications, an Arduino for actuation and sensing, a custom motor driver board, and an Edimax WiFi dongle. The principal actuator was a Firgelli L16 actuator, which was also used on Prototype 1. To attach to both tubes of a strut, each IPJR had two shaft collars, enabling the actuator to extend and contract the strut. The IPJRs communicated to one another, and a central control PC, via HTTP packets over the wireless network. The control PC both planned a sequence and used Maximum Likelihood Estimation or an Extended Kalman Filter to estimate error and correct future assembly steps. Also, like Prototype 1, this experiment did not use a robotic external manipulator, so I filled that role.

I ran two sets of experiments, each building a (different) variant of a 3D space telescope optical bench with surface curvature. The first set of experiments used the Extended Kalman Filter for state estimation and correction, while the second set of experiments used the Maximum Likelihood Estimator.

Completed truss using MLE.
Completed truss using MLE.

The next stage of my assembly research is in progress at Langley Research Center – I will reveal more when I can!


My thesis research was funded by NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship #NNX11AM83H.

  • Nikolaus Correll: for advising me.
  • Eric Frew, Sriram Sankaranarayanan, Tom Yeh, and Dan Scheeres: for serving on my committee.
  • Dustin Reishus: for mathematical contributions.
  • Andy McEvoy: for assembly stability research and numerous discussions.
  • John Dorsey and Bill Doggett: for help refining the IPJR concept and bringing me onto their team.
  • Dave Mercer, Bruce King, and Rob Hafley: for help designing and executing the Prototype 2 experiment at Langley Research Center.
  • Radhika Nagpal: for discussions that led to the design of Prototype 1.