Meet a robot that’s so graceful it can thread a needle, pick up an egg

While robots can perform a great number of tasks these days, they’re still just clunky machinery incapable of understanding their own strength and with no concept of delicacy.

To overcome this, engineers from Northeastern University, Disney Research, the Catholic University of America and Carnegie Mellon University have developed a new kind of hydrostatic transmission that combines hydraulic and pneumatic lines that can drive robot arms, offering them the gracefulness necessary to pick up an egg without breaking it.

This transmission offers a robot the extreme precision needed for tasks such as threading a sewing needle.

Humanoid robot assembled by the researchers employing the new transmission. (Image via Disney Research)
Humanoid robot assembled by the researchers employing the new transmission. (Image via Disney Research)

The design allows for robotic limbs to be made lighter and smaller and with life-like characteristics unlike any seen in robotic developments before.

“The transmission provides our robot with incredibly smooth and fast motion, while also allowing life-like interaction with people and the handling of delicate objects,” said Jessica Hodgins, vice president at Disney Research and a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon. “For now, the robot is remotely controlled by a human operator, but we would expect the same level of mechanical performance once the motions are automated.”

Typically, a robot joint would posses two hydraulic cylinders, balanced against each other, but the latest design employs a water-filled cylinder with an air-filled cylinder instead. The pneumatic cylinder acts as a constant force air-spring, providing the pre-load force needed to allow the joint to move in both directions with only half the number of bulky hydraulic lines.

Using the new transmission, the team built humanoid robot with two arms and stereo cameras mounted in the head. They then streamed their video signal to an operator wearing a head-mounted display.

Potential applications for robots equipped this technology include life-like interactions with people, since it offers the grace needed to perform tasks like threading a needle and picking up and egg.

Watch the robot in action.

Video and story via Disney Research.

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