The topic of robotic massage is not as simple as it may seem at first glance. Today, only foot massagers and massage chairs are commercially available. It is also possible to buy a variety of “massage” devices – wheeled or tracked – that roll over the body. Still, these are only extras that will not replace an experienced massage therapist with various techniques and at least basic medical knowledge.
Nevertheless, robotic engineers are taking a closer look at this market segment and are making their first steps by trying to apply various mechatronic systems for massage. One of the trends that is considered most promising is the use of collaborative massage robots.
But what can a robot massager and space technology have in common? It’s surprising but nowadays anything is possible, and everyone can have added value through space technology.
Austrian IIES, Rejlek and RUAG, who has been developing the magnetic geared actuators for several years, may be the furthest along. Originally magnetic geared actuators were designed to perform highly reliable and precise motion on satellites or aerospace vehicles, as robotic arms, solar arrays, rovers, steering antennae, or optical instruments. The technology was further developed during two ESA projects. “The magnetic gear developed for space has a row of promising applications on earth, the massage robot being my personal favorite” says Susanne Katzler-Fuchs, CEO of Brimatech and ESA Technology Transfer Broker for Austria.
A planned non-space application is a collaborative massage robot to meet the rapidly growing demand for wellness massage. The magnetic gearbox developed for space meets the requirements for technical safety (collision avoidance, maximum reverse limitation, shutdown mechanism) for a robot interacting directly with a human.
Using the physically limited maximum torque, it becomes possible to increase the maximum permissible massage pressure transmission up to 220 N (individually adapted to the respective body areas) without compromising the client’s safety. A completely new type of over-regulation mode, sensitive to external movements, can also be implemented. If the drive unit is overloaded by external loads (e.g., pushing the robot arm away), the energy flow in the magnet-based transmission is interrupted and, therefore, completely wear-free, causing the robot arm to stop without fail immediately. Once the load has fallen below the set overload again, the functionality of the drive unit is not restricted in any way. This absolute freedom from wear and tear at the cessation of force flow compared to existing solutions (slip clutch, torsion springs, etc.) is a significant technical advance.
The new development of magnetic transmission and the advantages it has achieved make it possible to create a cost-effective, efficient, versatile, and safe collaborative massage robot.
ESA Technology Broker Austria is managed by Brimatech Services in collaboration with Science Park Graz under ESA Space Solutions Austria. It is funded by ESA Space Solutions and the Austrian Research Promotion Agency.