Researchers at the University of Birmingham have developed a way of “teaching” robots to pick up unfamiliar objects without dropping or breaking them.
Scientists at the university’s School of Computer Science have designed a way of programming a robotic hand to be able to pick up an object and then use this information learned in the first grip to grasp to move a range of similar objects.
The researchers taught the robot a specific grasp type, for example, a power grip, using the whole hand to curve around an object, or a pinch grip, which uses two or three fingers. The robot was then able to generalise the grip and adapt it to other objects.
The robotic hands used by the team look very similar to human hands, with five jointed fingers, however, the programming would also work with robots that had other types of hand, such as pincer grips.
Jeremy Wyatt, professor of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, said: “Current robot manipulation relies on the robot knowing the exact shape of the object. If you put that robot into an unstructured environment, for example if it is trying to pick up an object amongst clutter, or an object for which it doesn’t already have an exact model, it will struggle.
“The programming we have developed allows the robot to assess the object and generate around 1,000 different grasp options in about five seconds. That means the robot is able to make choices in real time about the best grasp for the object it has been told to pick up and it doesn’t need to be continually retrained each time the object changes.”
The research paves the way for robots to be used in more flexible ways and more complex environments, including manufacturing and packaging industries where a wide variety of different tasks have to be undertaken.
Alta Innovations, the university's technology commercialisation office, is looking for partners interested in licensing the technology. The university is already working with several companies which are keen to incorporate the technology into their processes.
A video illustrating the technology can be viewed here.