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Robotics Hardware

Cheap Four-fingered Robot Hand Edges Closer To Human Dexterity 73

ananyo writes "A robot that can reproduce the dexterity of the human hand remains a dream of the bioengineering profession. One new approach to achieving this goal avoids trying to replicate the intricacy of the bones, joints and ligaments that produce our most basic gestures. A Sandia National Laboratories research team has adopted just such a strategy by designing a modular, plastic proto-hand whose electronics system is largely made from parts found in cell phones. The Sandia Hand can still perform with a high level of finesse for a robot, and is even capable of replacing the batteries in a small flashlight. It is expected to cost about $10,000, a fraction of the $250,000 price tag for a state-of-the-art robot hand today. The Sandia Hand's fingers are modular and affixed to the hand frame via magnets. This gives the researchers the flexibility to design interchangeable appendages tipped with screwdrivers, flashlights, cameras and other tools. The fingers are also designed to detach automatically to avoid damage if the hand hits a wall or other solid object too hard. The researchers say the hand can even be manipulated to retrieve and reattach a fallen finger. The Hand's current incarnation has only four fingers, including the equivalent of an opposable thumb. In the video with the article, the Sandia Hand demonstrates a number of capabilities, including, perhaps most impressively, dropping a AA battery into a flashlight."

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Cheap Four-fingered Robot Hand Edges Closer To Human Dexterity

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  • by bmo ( 77928 ) on Tuesday August 21, 2012 @07:24PM (#41075443)

    I am running a breeding program to produce smart cats with opposable thumbs on my secret tropical island in the Pacific.

    They can already open their own cans of catfood.

    You are all doomed.


  • Why is this hard? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I'm surprised that this and walking are such difficult tasks for robots. I would have thought that reverse engineering the hand would be easy once you've got actuators working. And the human gait has been observed to death and yet we can barely get the robots to walk. It's amazing that these structures we have working examples of cannot be mimiced yet in this day and age. Working consciousness, computer vision, anything that involves some sort of understanding on the part of the machine - I get. But a

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Everything seems simple to the person who isn't trying to do it.

      Practical real world experience tells us how complicated so much of life really is.

    • by mdfst13 ( 664665 )

      I'm pretty sure that we can make a robot that mimics the human gait. The problem is that unless we also have the robot mimic the human shape and composition, the robot will fall over while doing so. And that's not the worst problem. The much harder problem is for a robot to do things like change direction while walking. This is the kind of thing that our brains are evolved (or intelligently designed if you prefer) to handle well. It's a complex physical problem involving balancing a number of factors.

    • by bryonak ( 836632 ) on Tuesday August 21, 2012 @08:21PM (#41075955)

      Do this with a friend: place your phone on your open palm. Let your friend repeatedly hit your hand from below, not too hard, but enough to make the phone jump 1-2 cm. You probably won't have any troubles preventing the phone from dropping on the floor.
      Now take two or three pens, stick them between the fingers of your clenched fist and make sure they are somewhat parallel. Place your phone on them and let your friend hit the sticks from below. You probably don't want to do that, as your phone would land on the floor pretty soon. Using sticks that better approximate your hand, or even better, a display dummy hand, won't help much.

      It's not replicating the mechanical arrangement of your joints, but doing something useful with it. The instantaneous sensory feedback your hand gives you about it's own position and the probable position of the phone (pressure, slight air movement, etc), a good deal of which isn't exactly conscious, is quite hard for us to replicate today (with the resources most robotics teams have). Computers still struggle with the fuzzy matching your hand-eye coordination provides to your muscles in order to move in the right direction.
      Add to that the visual tracking problem you mentioned, and it turns into quite a feat.

    • Re:Why is this hard? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Animats ( 122034 ) on Tuesday August 21, 2012 @11:39PM (#41077377) Homepage

      I'm surprised that this and walking are such difficult tasks for robots. I would have thought that reverse engineering the hand would be easy once you've got actuators working. And the human gait has been observed to death and yet we can barely get the robots to walk. It's amazing that these structures we have working examples of cannot be mimiced yet in this day and age. Working consciousness, computer vision, anything that involves some sort of understanding on the part of the machine - I get. But a physical thing like the hand or the human gait? Both seem really well understood.

      But I guess they apparently aren't.

      Locomotion is reasonably well understood now, but that took a long time. The posting above illustrates one of the major misconceptions. Locomotion is not about gaits. For over a century, starting when Muybridge took the first movie, people did gait studies and obsessed on footfall patterns. That's all wrong.

      The first big breakthrough was when Raibert built a self-balancing one-legged hopper. With one leg, there aren't many gait options, and balance dominates the problem. Basic balance on the flat is 1) when in contact with the ground, level the body, and 2) when in the air, position the foot for a landing at the point that will result in zero change in speed. Displace the landing point slightly to accelerate or decelerate.

      On the flat, it's all about balance. Once you get off flat surfaces, traction control starts to dominate the problem. I did some work on that. It's like ABS for feet; the robot must keep side forces below the break-loose point.

      Once you have basic traction and balance, gait is an emergent behavior. Which foot can most usefully achieve the traction and balance goals? (With more than 4 legs, there are many options.) When something is maneuvering fast or recovering from an upset, there's concept of repetitive "gait". It's more of an asset management problem. Look at some of the Big Dog videos in detail to see this.

      Robot manipulation has been underestimated for decades, too. McCarthy once thought it was going to be a summer project to program a robot to assemble a Heathkit TV set kit. Big underestimation. That's still beyond the state of the art. (Stanford actually bought the TV set kit, which was finally assembled by some student and put in the CS department lounge.)

      Robots manipulate all sort of useful things in controlled environments, but manipulation in uncontrolled environments is still very poor. Willow Robotics has demonstrated towel and sock folding, which is cutting-edge work. The DARPA ARM program, not so much.

      Progress is picking up now that enormous compute resources can be devoted to the problem. It will pick up further when a simulator good enough to debug in is developed. DARPA is funding Willow Garage to upgrade Gazebo to do that. I suspect that the physics engine Gazebo uses is not up to the job, but that can be fixed by applying enough money.

      Money is important here. We're now at the point where throwing money at robotics produces real progress. That wasn't true 20 years ago, when NASA blew something like $100 million on the Flight Telerobotic Servicer and got zip.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I'm surprised that this and walking are such difficult tasks for robots.

      This is because walking feels easy to you. It feels easy to you because all of the heavy computation is being done subconsciously, so from introspection you really have no way to know how difficult it is. It's just like vision in that respect. The main thing to realize is that when you walk you are NOT repeating the same actions over and over - that you appear to be doing so is a major achievement of your brain. Your brain is continuously changing your steps and posture based on feedback from your entire bo

    • Regarding walking, try walking (or standing) with half-spheres glued to the bottoms of your feet (flat side up). You'll quicly realize how much "walking" involves minute sensory perception in the soles of the feet feeding even more minute changes in the weight being moved between your feet and ankles and each side of your foot.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      They have had robot hands for a long time (walking has different issues of changing centroids and keeping balance) they just cost a lot of money.

  • Seems like an arrangement of two fingers on one side and an opposed thumb on the other would be sufficient.

    This would also be a little less "uncanny valley".

    • I saw a documentary once about some poor Chinese guy who lost all his fingers in some kind of accident. The Chinese doctors removed some of his toes (the guy had pretty long toes) and ginned up a three-fingered hand for him with, of course, toes for fingers. It appeared to work really well. The guy seemed damned happy about it. Come to think of it, I would be, too.

      I looked briefly for a link to the old China story, but only came up with an upbeat human interest yarn about an American guy born with two fin

      • by thelexx ( 237096 )

        Reading on the subject (hand issue with a close family member) tells me that using toe joints to regain some finger functionality is not unknown in Western medicine currently. And I would speculate that a large part of the issue with five v. three is the cosmetic effect. This really can't be underestimated. It's the reason why many who currently can use a traditional clasping-hook prosthesis choose not to.

        BTW and kinda-on-topic - IMO the current state-of-the-art in hand prosthetics is from Touch Bionics [touchbionics.com]. Gr

      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        Interestingly, when toes are transplanted to act as fingers, they come to resemble fingers after a while.

        • That is interesting. Where did you find that out? It's too cool. Is the increased activity causing some stem cells to trigger and develop new tissue?. How does the toe somehow know? Thanks sjames.

          I don't know if you watched the clip I linked to, but the guy had seemingly had higher functionality in the end with his toe fingered hand than he did with his congenitally disabled hand. Hopefully he stays away from his table saw.

          • by sjames ( 1099 )

            I'm not honestly sure where I first saw that, but I think it was a documentary on Discovery.

            I imagine part of it is simply a matter of customary use resulting in remodeling, more or less the way bone and muscle change if you exercize them.

  • Making a glove?
    Why make an electronic glove when you can wear a specially printed regular glove and use several cameras to see where everything is?

  • This kind of thing makes me almost wish I'd lost a finger or a hand sometime. Screwdrivers? Cameras? Flashlights? Fingers that FALL OFF instead of HURTING when they get hit? My flesh-and-bone phalanges take too long to heal as it is. Next time I hurt one, it's coming right off.

  • "perhaps most impressively, dropping a AA battery into a flashlight"

    The hand struggles with the insertion and then the video is cut right before the flashlight is about to fall.
  • Do not think that the four-fingered hands of our robotic overlords are cartoonish at all.

  • by ilikenwf ( 1139495 ) on Tuesday August 21, 2012 @09:03PM (#41076305)
    ..to giving someone the finger!
  • now that they have decent hands, we will have robots stealing our cereal. they're always after me lucky charms.

  • As I was saying, a robot maid is far more convenient than a flying car. It may take me longer to get home in a normal car, but once I get there my house will be clean, my clothes folded, my lawn will be cut, my trash will be out and there will be food on my table.
  • Seriously though, I have always wondered, if we had 8 total fingers/thumbs, would we have a base 8 number system?
  • by fm6 ( 162816 ) on Tuesday August 21, 2012 @10:04PM (#41076799) Homepage Journal

    This exemplifies why Science Fiction was too optimistic when it assumed that robots (real thinking robots, not the programmable waldos that presently go by that name) would be ubiquitous by now. The basic things humans can do — parse visual data, parse language, manipulate object, make decisions based on complicated data sets — appear to be simple, but are actually complicated processes that resulted from millions of years of evolutionary tweaking.

    I'd mention the problems with the Three Laws of Robotics, but that always starts a flame war with some rabid Asimov fan, so I'll refrain. I will say that I think that machines that can truly think are still a long way away, and when they do appear they'll be as different from us as airplanes are from birds.

    • I don't think it was that optimistic, how were they supposed to know that computing development would virtually come to a halt for 20 yrs?

      • by fm6 ( 162816 )

        Excuse me? Come to a halt? Moore's Law is a myth? All those university compsci departments are just shams?

        • I suspect the GP's post about 20 years' halt in development refers to either or both of the lag in declassifying WW2 computer development and the abandonment of computer theory at Princeton's IAS (see Turing's Cathedral).

          • by fm6 ( 162816 )

            Neither of which had a significant impact on the growth of computer technology, which has been exponential since the 1940s. And I mean "exponential" in the literal sense, not as a buzzword for "really big".

            • How do you know that they had no effect ('impact' is incorrect)? We might have had a significantly different, and better, fundamental design paradigm that eliminated bus bottlenecks, improved failure management, and so on. After all, there's a lot of room to change the constant "K" in exp(K*time) :-)

    • Randall Munroe (xkcd guy) wrote about the difficulty for robots to manage the most simple things in our world. And what would a robot apocalypse look like [xkcd.com].
  • ...and the robot's weaknesses. The fluidity of the arm and hand are nearly as good as a human's. But the hand is human controlled. If this was controlled by a computer, it probably wouldn't be able to do many of the things in the video. But even forgiving that, it's the fluidity that would be lacking. Humans can make incredibly detailed and precise movements without thinking, something computers are probably still decades away from duplicating (maybe more).
  • Mickey Mouse and all his friends and all the cartoon characters since have done well with 4 fingers.

    Humans and most creatures with more than four digits are wasting at least one of them. Where is your dog's thumb? What's it good for? Yes, scratching it's ear, that's all. How often do you need all five appendages to accomplish something worthwhile? You can even throw a Series winning curve ball with only 4.

    OK, many robot designers have used a minimal number of fingers, but a few have stubbornly looked for fi

    • Mickey Mouse and all his friends and all the cartoon characters since have done well with 4 fingers.

      Cartoon characters don't lose fingers permanently. Humans do. The fifth finger is for redundancy in case another finger becomes inoperable.

      • by swell ( 195815 )

        "Cartoon characters don't lose fingers permanently. Humans do. The fifth finger is for redundancy"

        No, the fifth (middle) finger is for stickin it to the Man.
        Great title, interesting point; but regarding robots a total of 4 is still optimal.
        Especially if they connect with magnets (see TFA) and can be immediately replaced if they fall off.

  • - William Gates III.

  • Note the use of off the shelf hardware ( MIDI/USB DJ controller, sending a tempo CC, changing the speed of the (MIDI?) sequence ). I find MIDI to be very usefull in embedded project controllers.
  • When they attempted to use the robotic hand to automate functions in a nuclear reactor plant, the experiment failed miserably. Unfortunately, the hand is only adept at opening cans of Duff beer and eating donuts.
  • No one, not for any money wans to wash dishes in restaurants or clean public toilets.

    If the problem solved in robust and realistic way, there would be the billions' market for such robotized devices.
  • Across the face of the Earth, slashdotters everywhere raise their unkempt heads. For the first time hope shines in their reddened, monitor-strained eyes. As one, they unleash a great cry of joy into the fapmosphere, and shout, "Wow...that would REALLY feel like somebody else!"

  • Soon claiming a robot arm did it will be a good legal defense.

"Everyone's head is a cheap movie show." -- Jeff G. Bone