Robot lends a literal helping hand

University of Tokyo researchers have developed a robotic hand that can coordinate movements with a person to carry objects like boards that an individual would have difficulty with alone.

Using a high-speed camera, the system adjusts the robotic hand to keep the load level during transport, acting as if following the human partner’s arm movements.

In addition to helping out on the factory floor and at construction sites, the team led by professor Masatoshi Ishikawa and assistant professor Yuji Yamakawa envisions applying the system to prosthetic limbs.

A quick-moving robotic arm with a three-fingered hand is paired with the high-speed camera, which can capture images at better-than-HD resolution.

In developing the technology, the researchers worked on a situation where a person and the robotic hand lift opposite ends of a board and carry it together. They initially grab and lift the board and set it horizontally.

The system stores this state in memory and uses it as a baseline to adjust the robotic hand’s position to keep the board level during transport. It cannot predict how the person will move. But by using the camera to monitor the board’s position, it can detect when the board tilts and adjust the robotic hand to level it out.

In tests carrying a 6mm-thick board and the camera set to capture 640 frames per second, the robot kept the board fairly level, with only a couple of degrees of tilt at most, even when the person’s hands moved as much as 10cm more than 30 times in 10 seconds. A cup placed on the board did not tip over.

Most robotics research focuses on developing robots that can work autonomously at tasks. The team’s research is a rare case of a system designed to work in a collaborative way with people.

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