IF YOU fancy an extra pair of hands, why not take a leaf out of Dr Octopus’s book? A pair of intelligent arms should make almost any job a lot easier.
The semi-autonomous arms extend out in front of the body from the hips and are strapped to a backpack-like harness that holds the control circuitry. The prototype is the handiwork of Federico Parietti and Harry Asada of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who suggest that one of the first uses could be to help factory workers, or those with tricky DIY tasks to perform.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen robot arms designed to augment human abilities. It’s bold and out of keeping with anything I’ve ever seen to attach two arms to a human,” says Dave Barrett, a roboticist and mechanical engineer at Olin College in Needham, Massachusetts.
So how are the arms controlled? Parietti and Asada designed the limbs to learn and hopefully anticipate what their wearer wants. The idea is that the algorithms in charge of the limbs would first be trained to perform specific tasks.
To demonstrate what the prototype can do, a camera observed a pair of workers helping each other drill into a loose metal plate. The camera measured the distances between the tools and work surface, while feedback from sensors on the workers’ bodies tracked their movements. This taught the arms where to grab and how much force to apply, so it could then assist a lone worker to both hold the drill and secure the plate.
If you think the idea of free-roaming robotic arms holding power tools sounds alarming, you aren’t alone. “If a robotic arm can do useful work, it can also hurt you badly,” says Barrett. “Traditionally, people are kept far away from robot arms because the arms are dangerous. The concept of strapping robotic arms onto a person is terrifying,” he says.
Parietti and Asada have tried to address some of those safety fears by building the arms from softer material. Flexible components in the robotic arm, called series elastic actuators – invented in the 1990s by Gill Pratt and Matt Williamson at MIT – mean that less damage will be done if the arms do lose control.
Dennis Hong at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg says that roboticists have spent the last 30 years attempting to make robots more rigid, but now understand they need compliance and springiness to operate safely alongside humans. He says he has never come across robotic arms designed to be worn on the body.
The limbs were described at the Dynamic Systems and Control Conference in Florida last week. Funded by Boeing, their first use could be to help workers build aircraft. The broader goal, say the researchers, is for the limbs and their users to work seamlessly so that “humans may perceive them as part of their own bodies”.
Originally Posted at www.newscientist.com.