Miscalculations can lead the robot to drop an object — or damage it by gripping too firmly.
In a paper presented this month at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), the CSAIL engineers report that their robotic hand — made with soft, 3-D printed fingers — can lift an object without knowing its size or shape beforehand. Once the object is in hand, special sensors in the fingers allow the robot to "learn" what the object is so that it can recognize it later.
The hand actually fits onto existing robots (in this case, MIT's Baxter) to improve their function. It was a big improvement compared to Baxter's regular arm, which couldn't pick up many of the smaller objects the new hand managed handily, and crushed some others.
"The capabilities are so much more expansive than what the Baxter hand can do," CSAIL director Daniela Rus told The Post. "It can pick up a quarter, a piece of paper, a CD — very difficult things to pick up off of a table, even for a human."
Rus and her team hope that the hand will work more like a human limb than a robotic one.
"When you go to grab a pencil, do you really care which piece of each finger will contact each part of the pencil? No," she said. But this is how most robotic hands work, and it makes them slow and difficult to manage. "This hand does not really worry about where to put each finger, so it does something much more analogous to what we do as humans."
And since it's 3-D printed, the glove-like hand apparatus could be fitted to any robot.
The new hand's prowess is especially evident in the kitchen, Rus explained. One of her lab's previous creations was designed to bake cookies. But Bakerbot needed ingredients to be set out in bowls, because it couldn't handle picking up ingredients that were different shapes and sizes.
"This hand can actually pick up an egg, remove it from a carton," she explained. "It's just such a basic skill, but it's a big deal."