Making Robots Mimic the Human Hand

March 29, 2013

Making Robots Mimic the Human Hand


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. In the video, the two-armed robot uses a tool to remove a tire from a car. “We’re almost on the stage where we can put the the nuts back onto the bolts,” said Gill Pratt, a program manager at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or 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, a robot maker in Bedford, Mass., and the government’s Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico — are working on the hand project; they employ a variety of widely available technologies, like cellphone cameras and sensors, to help lower costs.“We’re definitely watching their progress,” said Rodney Brooks, founder of Rethink Robotics, a Boston-based maker of low-cost manufacturing robot systems.

The Darpa research has been vital in keeping the United States in the forefront of robotic technology, he said. He likened the current work to Darpa projects in the 1980s and 1990s that led to the robotic navigation technologies crucial to the development of self-driving automobiles.

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 chopsticks and then a piece of sushi, Dr. Pratt said.

The various hands are still a work in progress, he noted. The tire-changing video was made when “we were using the old hands and not the new hands, and they did not quite have the dexterity to thread the nut onto the bolt in a way that it doesn’t cross the thread.”

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 challenge would be to program a hand that could open the zipper on a gym bag and then go through the bag and recognize objects 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.

Until recently, the agency asked software developers to develop robotic programs for generic individual motions, like moving forward or backward; now it has set out to simply have the robots perform a specific task.

“You could say things like pick up the bottle, unlock the door, tasks like that,” Dr. Pratt said. The agency began with six teams and held a “bake-off” in which it chose three teams to continue in the last phase of the project.

In the software project, Darpa supplied each team with a standard hand that it then programmed.

“The grasping tasks were done so well that we believe that for the kinds of objects we had them pick up — ranging from a ball to a rock to tools like hammers — we don’t need to do further work in grasping,” Dr. Pratt said.

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.

Darpa is also continuing to finance the development of low-cost arms at Barrett Technologies, a robotics research firm in Cambridge, Mass.; Sandia; iRobot; and SRI International, a research organization in Menlo Park, Calif.

The agency is also planning to create a joint project to transfer some of the low-cost technology advances it has made in the project into a related effort to develop prosthetic limbs for wounded soldiers.

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 in Manchester, N.H., has developed a separate wearable arm now being considered for approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

That robotic arm is close to commercialization, said Geoffrey Liang, acting deputy director of Darpa’s Defense Sciences Office.

“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.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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