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The typical approach to adding actuated joints and additional degrees of freedom to a robot is slapping additional servos and motors on there. And that's fine, except that it adds weight and cost and complexity. A little bit of cleverness with gears can go a very long way, and Disney Research has developed a new rapid design tool that can create sophisticated mechatronics that operate with just one motor.

Disney designed ten animated characters with this system, and manufactured seven of them, and in each case, getting the character to do what they wanted it to do took less than half an hour. All of the parts involved can be 3D printed, too, which makes us think that it might be a lot of fun for Disney to release this too into the wild and let people make their own characters with it. But before they do, there some additional capabilities in the works:

"Our characters are currently restricted to cyclic motions," said Stelian Coros, an associate research scientist at Disney Research, Zürich. "However, our research brings us one step closer to the rapid design and manufacture of customized robots that can sense and interact with their environments to carry out complex tasks."

[ Disney Research ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
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In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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