Most humans find IKEA furniture assembly infuriatingly difficult ... and it turns out robots aren't much better at the task. In a new study out of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, researchers find that "fine robotic assembly, in which the parts to be assembled are small and fragile and lie in an unstructured environment, is still out of reach of today's industrial robots." The researchers' long-term goal is to get a robot to put together, on its own, an IKEA chair. The first step in their project was to get the robot to complete what they call a "highly dexterous task": inserting a small wooden dowel into a hole on another piece of wood. As the MIT Technology Review reports, the robot ultimately completed the task, but not before running into multiple problems.
Among those problems: The dowel is so small the robot almost can't "see" it, and the hole is similarly so small it's very near the limit of the robot's vision capabilities. "[Robots] find it impossible to work in the messy, cluttered environment that humans cope with easily," explains the MIT article. "They have difficulty locating and picking up small objects and they lack the fine control to assemble components." The researchers worked around these problems—the robot used the "grippers" on its arms to "feel" around and grab the dowel, and used its force sensors to move the dowel around the other piece of wood until it went into the hole. As Quartz notes, other robots have built simpler pieces of IKEA furniture in the past, but "none have managed to identify and assemble something as complicated as a chair." (Read more robot stories.)