Robots that look and act like us are still probably quite far away from reality. When faced with adversity, today’s most advanced robots tend to fall over. When trying to complete tasks that are pretty simple for humans, today’s robots tend to stab us in the face. But new research out of the University of Washington in Seattle shows that we’re at least getting closer to robotic hands that look and that actually act like ours, unlike a lot of the robot hands in the world today.
Researchers Zhe Xu and Emanuel Todorov created the robotic hand, which moves far more realistically compared to the average robot hand. Robotics reporter Evan Ackerman at IEEE Spectrum called it the most “detailed and kinematically accurate biomimetic anthropomorphic robotic hand” he’s even seen, meaning it really does move like a human hand. In a video released by Xu, we see him controlling the hand with an interactive glove (not quite as cool as other gloves), performing a series of movements that look almost lifelike.
Most robots equipped to grab things tend to either be designed with some sort of multi-pronged gripper device that looks like a glorified version of claw crane game, or a hand that approximates the design of a human’s, but with a far smaller range of motion. This is because the parts needed for the motors, hinges and points of articulation in mechanical hands tend to take up a lot more space than the design of the human hand, which has been perfected over millions of years of evolution. Xu and Todorov’s solution was to create something that more closely mimicked nature’s design.
The researchers scanned a human hand, and 3D-printed “bones” to use as a structure for their hand, connecting them to artificial joints and tendons made of specialized plastic and rubber. The 10 motors that control the movement of the tendons are located below the hand. The bones and joints aren’t rigidly fixed in one position—think about the way you can move your thumb around in multiple directions—which help give their hand a greater range of motion than the more rigid structures generally found in robot hands. “Our robotic hand design uniquely preserves the important biomechanical information of the human hand on anatomical level,” Xu told IEEE.
Xu and Todorov published a paper (pdf) on their work—which they plan to present at IEEE’s annual robotics conference in Sweden in May—which shows that their hand not only acts like a human hand, but also works like one as well. The team included photos of their hand grasping a range of challenging objects, from a dollar bill to a cell phone to a credit card and a piece of Tupperware. The team suggests even that in the future their hand design could actually be used as the basis for research into regenerating human limbs by grafting lab-grown cells onto their plastic design, writing that they planned to “collaborate with researchers from biology and tissue engineering to further explore its potential to serve as a bio-fabricated device/scaffold in the emerging fields of neuroprosthetics and limb regeneration.”
The Pentagon, among other institutions, has shown interest in this sort of research to help rehabilitate wounded soldiers returning from the battlefield. DARPA has funded research aiming to create a real-life version of Luke Skywalker’s robotic hand from the Star Wars films, and has already successfully created a robot hand that can be controlled by someone’s thoughts. But it’s likely going to take a few more years to move beyond the research phase that DARPA and Xu and Todorov are currently conducting, meaning you might be twiddling your thumbs for a while while you wait for your own robot hand.