September 23, 2009

Richard Walker, Shadow Robotics, Interview by Sander Olson

Here is the Richard Walker interview. Richard Walker is the technical director of Shadow Robotics, which is a British robotics company. Shadow Robotics has developed a dexterous human hand which has capabilities and a range of motion similar to a human hand. The company is also developing other robotic limbs such as arms and legs. The company is now researching embedding intelligence into their hand, as well as putting skin on the limbs. As the cost of robots decreases and the cost of human labor increases, robots will start to become ubiquitous in society.

The Shadow Robot website

Question 1: Tell us about the C6m smart motor hand. What range of motion does it have, and how reliably does it operate?

Answer: The C6M Hand is our newest development in Dextrous Manipulation. We took the C6 Air Muscle hand, which with 24 movements has the same movement capability as the human hand, and replaced the Air Muscle actuation with our own intelligent motor control system. That produces a Hand with the same range of movement as the C6 Air Muscle hand, but with a shorter forearm. The Smart Motor units we use have integrated force sensing, so we can precisely control applied forces.

Question 2 : How sophisticated are the sensors embedded in these robotic hands? How many different forms of stimuli can they sense?

Answer: We measure position of each joint using a Hall Effect sensor and rotary magnet. This is accurate to about 1/3 of a degree. We also measure either air pressure in the muscles, or force at the motors, which lets us know how hard a grip is being exerted. We've produced various designs of tactile sensing in the fingertip, with the best ones so far providing 34 sensing regions on each finger, good down to a few grams and up to about 1kg of load.

Shadow robot hand video from about one year ago.

Question 3: Is Shadow robotics capable of mass producing these hands or are they custom made?

Answer: We typically build Hand systems to order for research customers. We have a small in-house manufacturing capability, and good relationships with external subcontractors who manufacture many of the components for us, which would allow us to ramp up relatively quickly.

Question 4 : Has your company integrated your robotic hands with any mobile robots?

Answer: No, not so far. We're talking to a couple of organisations who produce mobile platforms about detailed integration work, but in essence the Hand system has a standard mounting fixture so you can just bolt it onto any robot arm available.

Question 5: Your company offers a leg building kit. How sophisticated are these legs? How strong are they?

Answer: The leg building kit is a slight misnomer. We provide muscle, sensor and control components to someone who is building a mechanism. The muscles are the 30mm muscles, so they are capable of a fair size force; the position sensors are accurate to less than 1 degree, and the SPCU gives plug-and-play control.

Question 6: How quickly can this robotic hand perform movements? What level of dexterity does it posses?

Answer: We looked at a video and tracked open-to-closed in 0.2 seconds at the fastest. The movement capability is that of the human; when you operate it from a dataglove the limitation is the calibration of the dataglove to your hand.

Question 7 : Can the c6m hand throw objects such as balls, with any velocity?

Answer: That's more a function of the arm that it's attached to, rather than the wrist of the Hand.

Question 8 : What do you anticipate will be the first mainstream or industrial use for the c5 and c6m robotic hands?

Answer: We're looking at a couple of areas quite actively now – one is bomb disposal work, where the possibility of using the dexterity of the Hand on a remote platform is obviously a big win, and the other is hazardous handling in laboratories – nuclear, chemical, biological – where you need skilled workers but protecting them restricts their ability to perform the task...

Question 9: Tell us about the new robotic arm. What are its specifications?

Answer: We were asked to produce a 4 degree of freedom biologically-inspired arm, using antagonistic muscles. It's capable of supporting a C6 hand with 2.5kg payload in the Hand. (We think it could be stronger, but to date haven't really powered it up). The movements are a rotation about the length of the forearm, a bend of the elbow, an underarm bowling movement and a sweep of the arm across the torso. (We don't implement the movement that raises the elbow sideways and upwards). Each of the movements has about the range of the corresponding human.

Question 10 : Have you collaborated with any other robotic companies?

Answer: We tend to work more with research organisations, but are now starting to reach out to companies offering capabilities that complement ours.

Question 11: What improvements and enhancements do you have planned for your next-generation robotic hand?

Answer: More thumbs. No, seriously, we're improving the control capability, making the system more rugged and maintainable, looking at tolerating more extreme environments, and seeing what can be done in terms of embedding intelligence into the Hand itself. As well as exploring skin.

Question 12: How much progress do you anticipate being made in the robotics field by 2020?

Answer: I suspect we'll have capable robots available, but they will only be found in areas where it's really hard – economically - to place humans. Low labor costs are the great barrier to robotics.

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