DARPA’s Robotic Hand Can Unlock and Open Your Door

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Engineers often turn to nature for inspiration, but working from evolutionary blueprints isn’t always necessary. The Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) recently showed off a dexterous robotic hand that uses three fingers, instead of a human-inspired four fingers and opposable thumb configuration. And the thing can unlock and open doors. Yikes.

The hand, developed by iRobot with support from Harvard and Yale, is part of DARPA’s Autonomous Robotic Manipulation (ARM) program. ARM aims to move beyond “remote manipulation systems that are controlled directly by a human operator.” The goal is to build systems that are robust, dexterous, and low-cost.

The DARPA hand uses Kinect to zero in on the object’s location before moving in to grab the item. It can pick up thin objects lying flat, like a laminated card or key. The hand’s three-finger configuration is versatile (can pick up a wide range of shapes, textures, and sizes), tough (used as a baseball tee), and strong (maintaining its grip on 50-pound weights).

Although its Kinect sensor begins to incorporate some autonomous capability, the hand still requires an operator for manipulation of objects in its fingers. But the ARM project is divided into hardware and software. The displayed tech is in the former category, and presumably, the latter category is still being developed.

The hand isn’t yet cheap by everyday standards, but the production cost has been dramatically reduced. Hands fabricated in batches of 1,000 or more can be produced for $3,000 per unit. According to DARPA, that’s an order of magnitude less than the current cost of $50,000 per unit for similar technology.

While such tech may find use in hazardous situations on the battlefield—defusing IEDs, perhaps—it’s not hard to see how there may be as many or more peaceful applications in factories or even at home. And it’s nice to see robot hands evolving. Three fingers are an improvement on all those clunky two-fingered pinchers robots always seemed to sport in the 50s and 60s. (Yes, there might have been humans in those robots—but still.)

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 3 Responses

  • Robotics May 17, 2013 on 11:26 am

    sometimes a robot can do with three fingers what humans can do with five, but this is not a rule. the robots will probably be customized depending on the work area and less for general purposes


  • pdfernhout May 19, 2013 on 6:01 am

    While robotics technology like in this video of a robot hand has many possible uses, that YouTube video leads to some other videos on “The Rise of the DARPA Machines” and DARPA’s iXo project focusing on creating advanced robots and AI for warfighting. Why not make robots to build abundance for all instead of focusing on building military robots to take away abundance from others or deny abundance to them? However, this has been an issue for decades (nuclear weapons instead of nuclear energy and medicine) if not millennia (bronze spears instead of bronze plowshares), so it is not a new concern, even as things become more urgent as our technological powers increase. For more on that theme:
    “There is a fundamental mismatch between 21st century reality and 20th century security thinking. Those “security” agencies are using those tools of abundance, cooperation, and sharing mainly from a mindset of scarcity, competition, and secrecy. Given the power of 21st century technology as an amplifier (including as weapons of mass destruction), a scarcity-based approach to using such technology ultimately is just making us all insecure. Such powerful technologies of abundance, designed, organized, and used from a mindset of scarcity could well ironically doom us all whether through military robots, nukes, plagues, propaganda, or whatever else… Or alternatively, as Bucky Fuller and others have suggested, we could use such technologies to build a world that is abundant and secure for all.”

  • Robert Schreib May 21, 2013 on 6:08 pm

    ?? Can it type a qwerty keyboard? It could become the next generation of office temps!