Compliance in robotic systems has been exploited to allow rigid mechanisms to come into contact with complex and possibly fragile objects. By incorporating compliance and instrumentation into a single device nearby objects can be detected before direct contact occurs. That way, safer and smoother robot guidance can be achieved both while approaching and while touching surfaces. Furthermore, the path planning and control problem is simplified as position based algorithms can be used regardless of the state of system, be it in free motion or constrained motion, or even during transitions between the two modes. This paper presents the design and experimental validation of a lightweight, low-cost and stand-alone instrumented compliant wrist mechanism which can be mounted on the tool plate of any rigid robotic manipulator. Embedded arrays of infrared sensors provide distance measurements. Each is finely tuned via a novel calibration procedure that overcomes inter-sensor variability. All signal processing is also embedded and wireless transmission connects the device to the robot controller to support path control. Real-time acquired measurements on the position and orientation of surfaces located in close proximity or in contact with the robot’s end effector permit close guidance of its operation. Experimental work demonstrates how the device provides physical compliance to prevent large impact forces to occur during non-contact to contact transitions by the manipulator’s end effector. It also demonstrates the stability and accuracy of the device outputs. Primary applications of the proposed instrumented compliant wrist include smooth surface following in manufacturing and safe human-robot interaction.
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