So a robot can pour a beer—big deal, right? Well, let’s just say that this robot doesn’t pour that beer in any way you might expect. It might just be a bigger deal than you realize. First of all, this isn’t your normal “robot pours a liquid into a glass” video. You’ll need to watch it to see why. Note that this robot is pouring beer, not drinking it like the infamous bipedal robot Bender from Futurama.
What Is KUKA Robotics?
KUKA Robotics is a leader in industrial robotics, and they have been in the robotics business for over 40 years. KUKA was instrumental in the development of mechatronics, which involves the interaction of mechanical, electrical, and software systems to achieve what none of them could accomplish alone. This company has its headquarters in Augsburg, Germany—and its German roots might explain why some of its robots seem to be so good at pouring beer.
Watching the KUKA Robotic Arm Pouring Beer
In the video, an older model KUKA robot achieves what others cannot. The bottle is pulled out of the glass while the robot pours, which is seemingly coordinated the pouring rate with the rate of how fast the foam is dissipating. It then delicately swishes the bottle around to break up the last bit of foam in the bottle so that every last drop can be added to the glass—and then it puts the empty bottle back on the table. Finally, it moves the glass back to the table. All of this is done without spilling too many precious drops, and the result is a perfect head of foam.
This isn’t the only video showing a KUKA robot pouring beer. In one interesting piece of advertising, a KUKA iiwa Lightweight Robot nicknamed Paulii goes head to head to in a pouring challenge against a radio presenter named Fleischi to see who can best pour a bottle of Paulaner brand wheat beer into a glass, beginning with opening the beer bottle. Paulii the robot successfully pours an absolutely perfect glass of beer.
The LBR iiwa robot used in that video has seven axes of rotation and very sensitive joint torque sensors in each of axes. The joint torque sensors can be used to determine if the bottle or glass is empty based on its weight. They also facilitate the process of removing the cap from the bottle using the correct amount of force. The joint torque sensors also provide feedback to the robot so it can pick up a rather delicate glass without breaking it.
This particular robot was designed to handle very delicate assembly work and to work alongside humans. Part of the emphasis on sensitivity is to allow it to determine if it has made contact with something (e.g., a human arm) and adjust its speed and force instantly.
According to KUKA, the goal of Paulii’s video was a demonstration of human-robot collaboration (HRC). along with the application of the object-oriented programming that makes up the core of the control system that KUKA calls Industry 4.0.
Why Bother With a Beer-Pouring Robot?
Some would argue that designing robots to perform tasks like pouring beer are a waste of time—that they’re a poor use of both talent and technology. But others disagree. Sure, there may not a need for a robot that can pour beer, even though robots can do it with as much or more flourish than a human can and, based on the videos, with more accuracy and better results. But there is a need for a robot that can:
- Interact with delicate objects and objects with complex contours
- Implement multiple sensors, such as joint torque sensors, to inform its actions
- Be lightweight and responsive enough to safely work around humans
- Perform repetitive and unergonomic tasks, leaving more challenging and creative jobs for skilled human workers
- Move slowly and predictably to perform delicate operations
- Achieve extreme accuracy in positioning and motion
Some might criticize the choice of pouring beer, but keep in mind that KUKA is a Germanic company, and beer festivals and beer gardens are an inherent part of their culture. The NAO robot from SoftBank Robotics does a very impressive Thriller dance that would make Michael Jackson himself quite proud. Boston Dynamics’ Spot Mini goes for a walk and performs some menial domestic tasks. Robot demos often reflect the culture of the country they are developed in, as well as the interests of their creators.
Such entertaining applications can also seed ideas for new uses and innovations in robotics. If a robot can expertly pour beer without spilling a drop, then it can do the same thing with caustic chemicals. And if a robot can manipulate dangerous liquid compounds with such precision, then such tasks can be delegated to a robot and not to a human.
Another benefit of more entertaining aspects of robotic applications ties in with the future engineers, scientists, and programmers. Such demonstrations can help encourage young people to study STEM-related subjects.
In addition, the use of a robot arm instead of a more humanoid robot helps deal with public perceptions of robots, including issues related to the notorious “uncanny valley” and science-fiction influenced concerns about a future with hostile robotic overlords. Recent comments by Elon Musk have not helped the cause of robots and AI.
Will a beer-pouring robot change the world? Not by its beer pouring, but the combination of science, technology, programming, and innovative engineering that went into its design and implementation is another story. As the technology behind robotics continues to develop, we can only imagine what kind of robot videos we will be watching in another 20 years.