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Planar Manipulator may lead to a pub counter that automatically
moves drinks down the bar or a conference table that serves cups of
coffee to everyone seated around it.
Reznik's work is part of a larger field called distributed
manipulation. It dispenses with complex machinery like robot arms,
and instead employs thousands of simple actuators like magnets or
With obvious industrial applications, distributed manipulation
has jelled as a discipline only in the last couple of years, Reznik
Scientists at Rice University,
Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Washington and
other institutions are working on both micro- and macro-systems for
moving very large objects and very tiny ones.
The U.S. Postal Service, for example, is backing efforts to build
giant roller systems capable of moving heavy packages from one end
of a warehouse to another, Reznik said.
At the other end of the scale, researchers have carpeted the
surface of silicon chips with microscopic cilia for manipulating
Reznik's UPM is a little more utilitarian.
For example, the technology could be used for tables that
automatically lay places for dinner. Just throw down all the plates,
knives, forks and glasses and everything will be put in the right
The technology is so precise that it can move individual objects
in any direction while leaving other objects exactly as they were.
"You could have this anal-retentive table," Reznik said. "If
anyone moves the salt shaker, the table would move it back to its
position. It would always be perfectly set."
Right now, the prototype can sort and rearrange individual
objects like poker chips, coins and bottles. But Reznik said one day
it may be used to move heavy objects like furniture or large
The UPM is like a tray that shakes very rapidly. Made out of the
honeycombed material used for aircraft flooring, it is vibrated by a
series of motors similar to those in sub woofers.
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