Pentagon Seeks Robotic Hand With Soft Touch

DARPA invests in technology to develop more human-like robotic hands; iRobot demonstration shows promise.

Patience Wait, Contributor

May 1, 2013

2 Min Read

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The Department of Defense has demonstrated a robotic hand with finger movements that are closer to those of a human hand than the claw-like hands of earlier robots.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Autonomous Robotic Manipulation (ARM) program released a video showing the prototype hand picking up a key, turning it in a door lock, and opening a door, among other tasks. The device was built by iRobot.

The purpose of the ARM program is to develop autonomous manipulation devices that are able to grasp and manipulate objects of various sizes in a real-world environment, receiving only high-level direction from human operators. The goal is to enable robotic hands to work in military mission environments, faster and with increased autonomy.

[ What other innovations has DARPA been investing in? Read 10 Breakthrough DARPA Technologies. ]

Contractors for the hardware part of the program are developing hand mechanisms with three or four fingers and usable palms to replace the pincer-type claws on robots today. While current technology costs about $50,000 per device, DARPA’s teams have produced hands that could be built for as little as $3,000 each, if purchased in lots of 1,000.

In addition to straightforward pickup of objects that are very small, awkwardly shaped, or heavy, the new wave of robotic hands can manipulate them between their fingers when controlled by skilled operators. This enables the hands to make use of tools ordinarily used by humans.

In addition to hardware development, the ARM program has a software track, which is developing new algorithms and ways the hands can grasp and manipulate, using embedded sensors. There also is an outreach track, which places robotic systems in public museums such as the National Air and Space Museum for demonstration purposes. DARPA also has encouraged companies and individuals to develop algorithms for robot autonomy, which can be tied through the Internet to a real system for evaluation and demonstration.

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Patience Wait


Washington-based Patience Wait contributes articles about government IT to InformationWeek.

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