Is it possible to build a better robotic arm

Northeastern researchers strive to eliminate the stiff, jerky movements of robotic arms to make them graceful and skillful enough to gently pick up an egg or sturdy enough to stack plates. The findings could one day allow medics to perform surgery remotely on a remote battlefield or help bomb disposal experts safely remove an explosive device.

A video demonstration a university project involving a researcher wearing a C-shaped gripping claw attached to his right hand while a nearby robotic arm mimicked his exact movements showed the promise of hydraulic technology designed to be low friction.

Peter Whitney, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, puts a remote-controlled robotic arm to the test. Photo by Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

The researcher in the video lowered and raised his arm, swept it left and right, and bent it at the wrist, fluid actions that were copied in tandem by the robotic arm. What was not obvious was how the human operator was able to feel the same forces as the mechanical arm as it closed over an object, allowing the user to get a feel for the textured surfaces.

The Northeast project involves building remote-controlled robot arms that don’t have heavy motors traditionally installed in the wrist joints. Instead, they are placed in the base of the machine.

“Without a motor in the arm, they are much lighter than a traditional arm”, explains Peter Whitney, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern. “So now if you have a lighter arm it’s a lot easier to move it. “

The advancement of engineering has the potential to overcome a fundamental obstacle that humans face when controlling robots remotely: understanding the environment in which the machine is located.

“It’s hard to perceive exactly where the robot is in relation to the environment, whether it is touching something or not, or how or how hard it is touching an object,” says Whitney, whose research focuses on the robot design, the materials they are made of, and how they are operated and controlled.

“These are all factors that can influence how we can achieve good performance, but also maintain safety,” he adds.

Remotely controlled, the robotic arm is lighter and moves with greater dexterity than heavier arms. Photo by Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

Researchers now have the ability to machine learn with real-time information that indicates the force applied.

“So when we try to grab an object or manipulate an object, we can actually use these contact forces, in the same way that human muscles feel forces such as the heaviness of an object,” says Whitney.

Machine learning is an active area of ​​research among Northeastern faculty, Whitney says. He works with Robert platt, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Khoury College of Computer Sciences, on a National Science Foundation project involving lightweight robots best designed for direct and intentional contact with an object.

Whitney also collaborates with Taskin Padir, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, to study the potential of remotely controlled robots to be used to physically interact with friends and family, serving as mechanical substitutes. The technology could allow people to kiss a loved one in quarantine as an example of their potential, Whitney says.

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