Domestic robots to help with everyday chores are still largely the stuff of science fiction, but one German pHD student says he and his team have taken a step closer to the dream of making a soft, deft, versatile robotic hand.
“The vision is that one day robots can help people in their everyday [tasks],“ said student Rapheal Deimel as he demonstrated his new robotic hand at the international “Robotics – Science and Systems“ conference at Berlin Technical University (TU) on Thursday.
“They could bring things from A to B for example, look for lost keys or clean rooms,“ he added. But before this can become a reality, robots must be able to pick things up without crushing them.
Deimel and his team think they may have hit on the secret to the precise and gentle movement needed for such tasks - light-weight silicone propelled by a pneumatic mechanism.
Controlled via a computer, the team's hand can grasp various objects of different sizes, shapes and textures.
Most exciting of all, said Deimel, is that the hand can determine how hard the fingers grasp depending on the size of the object. “The hand doesn't need any sensor technology at all,“ he said.
Working on the basis that in order to be any use at all a robot must be able to pick up a variety of objects, the team have developed what they call “shape match,“ where the hand can fit around the object in question - and have successfully tested it on water bottles, spectacles and sheets of material.
The team say silicone has a number of advantages over metal as a material for constructing robots. Not only is it light-weight, but also robust – Deimel said his robotic hand can withstand heat, boiling water and sand.
Even better, said Deimel, the design could bring down the cost of a single robot hand from the current price-tag of up to €100,000 down to between €300 and €400, bringing the dream of mass-production helper-robots closer than ever before.
In a further step, Deimel has decided to make the design available online together with Oliver Brock, his professor from the TU Robotics and Biology Laboratory.
There's still a long way to go, however, until the silicone hand can mimic the human hand's dexterity, said Deimel. Furthermore, it's still limited to carrying objects up to 500 grams in weight.
And, unfortunately for Deimel, a finger detached itself from the robotic hand during Thursday's demonstration. “The technology often works, but not every time yet,“ he said.