Robot Finger Does What Your Finger Can't

These robot fingers add entirely new axes of motion to the traditional robotic gripper

2 min read
Robot Finger Does What Your Finger Can't

The thing (well, one of the things) we love about robots is that they can be designed to do things that humans can't. It's not just that they can do human-y things better—it's that they can take a piece of our selves (like fingers) and improve on them to enable totally new capabilities. Osaka University's Omni-Finger is just such a robot, giving artificial fingers an entirely new dimension.

While the prototype in this vid just has one Omni-Finger, the final concept will include three of them (as in the illustration below). This will enable robots to arbitrarily alter the orientation of objects that they've grasped without having to set the object down, manipulate it, and re-grasp it, making grasping tasks as a whole easier and much more efficient. The only problem remaining is to figure out how to keep the fingers in contact with an irregular object as the fingers move it around, but the researchers are working on some creative ideas involving surrounding the fingers with deformable sacks filled with some sort of viscous fluid.

Robotic Omni-Finger

Just imagine for a second what's going to happen a short time in the future when robots start playing baseball with hands like these. Talk about a curveball! Maybe what'll happen is that in order to get a gig as a pitcher, humans will need to have their real fingers surgically replaced with Omni-Fingers in order to have any hope of keeping up with the robots.

Robotic Finger Mechanism Equipped Omnidirectional Driving Roller with Two Active Rotational Axes, by Kenjiro Tadakuma, Riichiro Tadakuma, Mitsuru Higashimori, and Makoto Kaneko from Osaka University in Japan was presented last week at the 2012 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in St. Paul, Minn.

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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