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Unimate Puma 500: Vintage Robotics

The Engineering EXPO has been a prestigious annual event held at Tampa, Florida’s University of South Florida since 1974. Sponsored by USF’s College of Engineering, the event is held during February’s National Engineering Week. In 1981, my father was chosen as part of one of only three student teams to present projects at the EXPO.

Robotics was considered an exciting wave of the future in those days, so Dad’s team created a robotics project. Using an Apple IIe, the team programmed a Unimate Puma 500 robot arm. With no real model to work from, Dad’s group brainstormed and developed the project from concept through implementation.


The robot arm had two claw attachments which were programmed to rotate on their own. The robot first inserted a bolt into an electric screwdriver attached to a table. It then retrieved two blocks of wood, one at a time, each containing a pre-drilled hole. It placed the wood blocks onto the bolt, and then placed a nut onto the end. Pressure on the nut activated the screwdriver for tightening. Finally, the robot picked up the entire assembly and placed it onto a conveyor belt.

Although the project was simple, it utilized highly advanced technology for the times. As a small child, I was flabbergasted by the ease with which the robot did the things my dad programmed it to do.

A year later, EPCOT Center opened at Walt Disney World. One of the attractions, World of Motion, featured a show at the end called “The Bird and the Robot.” In the show, an animatronic bird interacted with a robot arm. I couldn’t believe the robot that Disney selected was the Unimate Puma 500, the same type that Dad had programmed just a year before. It made me feel like my family was truly on the cutting edge of technology!

Incidentally, you can still buy a descendant of the Puma 500 today. Unimation was acquired by Swiss manufacturer Stäubli in 1988 and they produce robots capable of lifting from 1 to 100 kg with a variety of special-purpose attachments.

And - if you have deep pockets - you can pick up a Puma 500 on eBay.


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