NASA grasps intricacies of human hand

By Eric Smalley, Technology Research News

Robotic hands have been around for decades but they usually bear little more than a passing resemblance to the real thing. Now NASA researchers have raised the bar with a robotic hand that closely mimics the inner workings of the human hand.

The hand, part of the ongoing Robonaut project, is designed to use the tools and handholds astronauts use during space walks. This purpose, more than aesthetics, led the researchers to copy the human hand as closely as they did, said Chris S. Lovchik, an engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"The more you begin to look at tool use, [you find that different tools] involve different portions of the hand," he said. For example, the palm of the Robonaut hand had to be accurately modeled in order for the hand to grasp a screwdriver in alignment with the roll of the arm, he said.

The device is a right hand attached to a wrist and forearm. It has 12 controlled degrees of motion and 42 sensors for tracking the position and velocity of the hand' s moving parts. The researchers are adding tactile sensors.

"It's one of the best [robotic hands] that I've seen," said Reid Simmons, a senior research scientist at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. "It's really quite an amazing piece of work. It's got very good dexterity. It's amazing how compact it all is."

The Robonaut system, which will have a torso, two arms and a head, is designed to be controlled by a human operator. "The overall objective is essentially to create a surrogate for the astronauts," Lovchik said. Researchers are programming primitives, or sets of commands for simple actions, that make the hand easier for the operators to use. For instance, you don't think about how to draw a circle because your brain learned the primitives for drawing a circle in early childhood.

The researchers plan to automate simple tasks like grasping and could eventually make the hand fully automated, according to Lovchik. Fully automating the hand will be a major project, according to CMU's Simmons.

"A lot of what [humans] do very well is very fine force feedback control," Simmons said. "If you're putting and nut on a bolt you can feel when it's getting stuck and when it's too tight, and you can compensate for that. That type of [control] is beyond current state-of-the-art."

Robonaut could be ready for space missions in five years, according to Lovchik. Funding for the project comes from NASA and the Department of Energy.

Timeline:  5 years
Funding:  Government
TRN Categories:  Robotics
Story Type:  News
Related Elements:  Photo


June 28/July 5, 2000

Page One

Cortex chip goes both ways

Sampling ability broadens quantum computing

Nano-scale plotter goes parallel

NASA grasps intricacies of human hand

Algorithm evolves more efficient engine


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