Making robots mimic the human hand

April 1, 2013

As part of a national research project to develop low-cost artificial hands, the Pentagon has released a video of a robot that can change a tire — almost, The New York Times reports.

In the video, the two-armed DARPA-funded robot uses a tool to remove a tire from a car:


(Credit: DARPA)

The goal of the program, now in its third phase, is to develop robots and prosthetic devices for wide use. Until now, high cost as well as limits on dexterity and machine vision have been major obstacles to advanced robotic systems.

Robotic hands that mimic the capabilities of the human hand have cost $10,000 or more, and computer vision systems have worked only in highly structured environments on a very limited set of objects.

But it is becoming feasible to make hands that will cost less than $3,000 in quantities of 1,000. Two teams — from iRobot and Sandia National Laboratories — are working on the hand project; they employ a variety of widely available technologies, like cellphone cameras and sensors, to help lower costs.

One of the hands under development comes with three fingers and the other comes with four, and they are able to do a variety of delicate operations. In one DARPA video, a robot hand picks up a tweezers and uses it to pick up a straw and move it back and forth.

Darpa also set out tasks that it hopes to accomplish during the next phase. One example is to design a robot arm and hand that can search for an improvised explosive device, or I.E.D., by touch.

The agency is also financing research groups in two other categories. It has selected the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Southern California to continue development of high-level software for the next generation of robot arms.

Manipulating grasped objects was a more challenging task, he said, and one on which the teams would continue to do research. The program is financed for 18 more months.

Johns Hopkins University has received funds to develop a neural interface — a direct link from a robot arm to the human brain — and DEKA Research, an independent development laboratory headed by Dean Kamen, has developed a separate wearable arm now being considered for approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

“We have pictures of young men doing rock climbing and one of the patients using chopsticks, which is really extraordinary,” he said. “It provides a high degree of functionality, and the patients who have it are using it.”