Robot Arms and Linkages Tidbit (11/18/02)

prepared by:

Joseph Malkevitch
Department of Mathematics and Computer Science
York College (CUNY)
Jamaica, New York 11451

Email: malkevitch@york.cuny.edu (for additions, suggestions, and corrections)

Introduction

One of the great adventures of the early 21st century is the International Space Station. This orbiting laboratory stocked with crews from all over the world and launched with American and Russian rockets may not be as flashy as the landing on the moon but it is no less exciting. One of the tools the astronauts use in putting together the station and carrying out the regular scientific experiments going on is a robotic arm provided by Canada. Robot arms are the mechanical equivalent of the human arm. When you or I want to get work done with our arm we just do it! But because robot arms are not volitional the movements that robot arms make must be programmed into the control mechanisms for the arms so that they can work effectively. What is the essence of an arm? It consists of rigid rods (bone equivalents) which are jointed so that they can move with respect to one another. We are on our way to thinking about arms, fingers, robot arms and windshield wipers in mathematical terms.

We will simplify and discover that even the simplest formulations lead to very great complexity. We will assume that we are given a collection of straight line segment rigid rods, confined to a plane but hinged at the points where the rods are connected so that they can move freely with respect to one-another. It is customary to refer to the rigid bars as links and the points where the bars are hinged as vertices. The whole structure is referred to as a linkage. The diagram below shows two simple examples, each consisting of two rods:

Imagine that we have a pen located at A3 and that A1 has been pinned. What are the points that the pen can reach so that they can paint those points in principle? To answer this question we can introduce a coordinate system with the origin at (0, 0) and given the lengths of the linkage rods we want to be able to compute the points that the pen attached to A3 can reach? To do this we need to be able to describe the position of A3 with respect to A2 and A1. One way to do this is to be able to us information about angles. If we adopt a convention about how to measure enough angles between the pinned vertex and the link arms perhaps we can describe the coordinate of the place where vertex A3 will be located.

If we measure angles as positive angles from the horizontal, we can for example describe the linkage in the diagram below:

Ruler Folding

A very appealing and simple question concerning chain linkages is due to Sue Whitesides. Suppose one has a chain linkage with links of length 5, 3, 6, 4. What is the smallest case into which the linkage will fit after folding?

We will assume that links have zero height and will fold on top of each other. The general problem is to determine the smallest case for a general linkage.
The problem was originally chosen to be a simplified version of a motion planning problem for a robot arm, which took the form of a chain linkage.

This problem was solved by John Hopcroft, Deborah Joseph, and Sue Whitesides who showed that the problem was NP-complete. This means that the problem belongs to a class of problems whose computational complexity is ambiguous. On the one hand if any NP-complete problem could be solved in polynomial time then all NP-complete problems could be solved in polynomial time. On the other hand, if any NP-complete problem could be shown to require exponential time to solve then all NP-complete problems would also require exponential. Somewhat surprisingly, considering the broad nature and importance of the NP-complete problems, no one knows which of these two possibilities hold!

Straightening chain linkages and convexifying polygons

One of the simplest forms of linkage is a linkage which as a graph forms a path. An example is shown below:

A slightly more complex type of linkage is when the links form a polygon:

For these two particular linkages, it is clear how to manipulate the path linkage to be fully stretched along a straight line, and the polygon linkage to form a convex polygon (e.g. the internal angle between consecutive edges is at most 180º). However, is it clear how to straighten the path linkages below?

Similarly, it may not be clear how to convexify the polygon below:

In attempting to straighten a chain linkage or to convexify a polygonal linkage there are two different sets of rules that might apply:

a. Links are allowed to interpenetrate (even though this is not physically possible - mathematicians have an advantage over engineers!)

Not surprisingly, its much easier to work in the situation where links can interpenetrate. But what about the case where links are allowed to touch but not cross each other?

For nearly 30 years mathematicians were unsure of what the situation was in this case. However, in 2000, Robert Connelly (Cornell), Erik Demaine (MIT), and Günter Röte(Berlin) proved that every chain linkage could be straightened and every simple plane polygon could be convexified. Their proof used ideas from linear programming, differential equations, and rigidity theory. Furthermore, shortly thereafter, building on what they had done, Ileana Streinu (Smith College) provided a constructive approach to this problem. Her solution takes advantage of an interesting collection of combinatorial structures called pseudo-triangulations. Here is an example of a pseudo-triangulation.

Each internal face is a pseudo-triangle. A pseudo-triangle is a polygon which has exactly 3 convex vertices.

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