China National Space Administration launched its 300th Long March mission last week. Long March 3B rocket launched on March 10 that took off from Xichang…
That’s supposedly what people with mobility problems will one day be able to say to their robot companions if engineers at Virginia Tech in the US get their way. They want to create robots with the manual dexterity to operate the machines people regularly encounter in everyday life, whether they are plain old computers, drinks vending machines, bus/tram/train ticketing machines or shopping mall info kiosks. But there’s a problem: right now, the robotic hands that have been developed for tasks such as spacecraft maintenance (like NASA’s Robonaut), defusing IEDs (as Shadow Robot has suggested) or the astonishing nerve-controlled prosthetic limbs from TouchBionics, are all geared for their own tasks – and not for circa 30-words-per-minute typing or sundry button-pressing tasks by robots.
So Shashank Priya and Nicholas Thayer of Virginia Tech in the US have designed a robotic hand that they hope to optimise for keyboard work. They reveal their “dexterous anthropomorphic robotic typing hand” (DART) in the latest edition of Smart Materials and Structures, a journal published by the Institute of Physics in the UK. “DART is being optimised for use by the humanoid robots being developed to assist elderly people who want to operate computers and other machines. And they will be able to do this by giving the robot voice commands.” In a world where all machines are voice-controllable, this wouldn’t be necessary – but that’s such a distant prospect users won’t be able to guarantee that the machine they want to use will have that capability. As a first step on their National Science Foundation funded program Thayer and Priya ruled out pneumatic artificial muscles, shape memory alloys and electroactive polymers as either too bulky or too inefficient to drive their keyboard-clacking digits (see video). They settled on using 19 tiny servo motors to actuate their hand – all placed in a forearm and connected to the joints via wire tendons that ensured “proper joint angles while typing.”In tests, one hand managed a top speed of 20 words per minute – but by adding a left hand, a typing speed of over 30 wpm is anticipated. The average human typing speed is 33 wpm with two hands.Of course, some machines have touchscreen control – so the DART hand has its own silicone skin that allows such use in addition to making the robot look more human.Prepare, as the saying has it, to kneel before your iPad-wielding robotypist overlords.
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