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FEATURE: Does a robot hand need to look like a human one?

Joseph Flaig

The Shadow Robot hand (Credit: Will Amlot)
The Shadow Robot hand (Credit: Will Amlot)

From radioactive ruins to the surface of Mars – the Shadow Robot hand could tackle tasks in the least hospitable of places. What is the key to its versatility? Is there an inherent efficiency to the human hand after millions of years of evolution?

Not necessarily, says Rich Walker. “We built a human-like robot hand because we figured that if we build that it would be able to do everything a human could do. That means, if you’re trying to solve the rest of the problem, you don’t have to worry about that part of it.”

Old power stations were designed for human operation, for example, making the Shadow an easy fit. Decommissioning operators would use radiation-resistant people if they could, jokes Walker.

Space is more virgin territory, but spacecraft and space stations have so far been optimised for use by people. If a robot has the same, even better, capabilities, it could be very attractive for mission leaders. 

“Avatars will take on many shapes, forms and sizes, depending on the use,” says ANA’s Kevin Kajitani. “In that respect, I don’t believe that anthropomorphic robot design is 100% essential. However, there are two big advantages that I see with anthropomorphic design. One of them is intuitive operation. Our brains are accustomed to manipulating things with our human hands, so, if the avatar also has a human-like hand, it will greatly reduce the time needed to master the operation of that system. 

“The second advantage is almost everything that humanity has built until now assumes the human form, so having an anthropomorphic robot ensures that they will be able to utilise existing infrastructure effectively.”

Force feedback

Anthropomorphic robots will be an easy fit thanks to their size, configuration and strength, says David Bisset, executive director of the European Robotics Association. “If you’re using an anthropomorphic hand and it’s more natural and you’re getting the force feedback – which is something that Shadow has just made – you’re going to find that more intuitive and you can probably reduce the stress levels and increase the amount of time that people can work.”

In this way, human-like robots will transcend human capabilities. They can be stronger, more efficient, and work where people cannot. 

“To date, I believe there have only been something like 500 people in space,” says Kajitani. “These astronauts not only require oxygen, food, water and safe living quarters to survive in space, but also are not necessarily experts in every discipline needed for space construction or a specific mission. Avatars can be embodied by anyone, which means we can bring the necessary human resources and skill when and where they are needed, without risking human life and for a much lower cost.”

Unfortunately for sci-fi fans, it is unlikely that humanoid robots will stroll into everyday life and every engineering sector. Other designs will be faster, stronger and more efficient in many tasks, including much of manufacturing and sorting. But the time for Shadow and others to roll out their anthropomorphic technology in niche areas is at hand.


Read part one, "Humans need a hand. The Shadow Robot Company can help", here.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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