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Robot With Human-Like Hands Could Tackle Dangerous Situations

  • George Putic

Robo Sally is a remotely controlled humanoid robot that may one day help law enforcement officials and emergency technicians defuse bombs, patrol large spaces and do guard duty. It was designed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory [APL], outside Washington, D.C.

The robot is a versatile moving platform with a humanoid attachment that looks like a modern day centaur. It can turn in tight spaces, climb over small obstacles, closely examine objects and even manipulate them with human-like hands.

But Robo Sally was not initially designed for sentry duties.

Mike McLoughlin, the principal investigator for APL's Prosthetics Program, said, "The purpose of that program is to develop prosthetic arms that have all the capability of your natural arms, and you do all the complex motions that we can do with the natural arm - with the robot. We had this idea if we did this for prosthetics for humans, we could also put these on robotic platforms and enable the robots to go out into dangerous situations.”

It was a complex task. McLoughlin said the device not only had to have many small motors to mimic the flexibility of the human hand, it needed human-like strength. The thumb was especially difficult because it allows the hand to grasp objects. And everything had to fit into a space about the size of a hand.

The next problem, McLoughlin said, was to figure out how to control the artificial hand. “So we had to figure out how to make the connection between the brain and this arm. We’ve done that for spinal injury patients, where we can actually interface with the brain and use the patient’s thoughts to control the arm.”

Of course, for search-and-rescue duties, Robo Sally will be operated by wireless remote control, through special gloves and glasses. The glasses allow the operator to see the robot’s hands and enables him to finely control their movement.

McLoughlin said robots like this could be used in “dull, dirty or dangerous” situations where human dexterity is a requirement. “So, for example, opening a door, or turning the valve or, you know, going to a factory or a power plant like Fukushima, that was all designed for humans. You need to be able to go in and have the human-like capabilities in order to be able to work in that environment.”

McLoughlin said the technology is not ready for practical application, but he predicts that within five years we will see some amazing advances.
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