Robot arms in real life have rarely approached the tech you've seen in the movies...until now. Meet DLR's newest super-strong arm and hand unit, designed to replicate a flesh-and-blood one with moves so human it'll put the chills up you.
We've met DLR (Germany's Aerospace Research center) before, and their space-bound Justin robot was certainly astonishing. But even Justin's flexible fingers are no match for the amazing system that DLR's just unveiled. It may be the most human-like android arm and hand unit yet. Plus, it's super-strong (did anyone say Terminator?).
One of the odd facts you may not know about your own hands is that much of the mystical muscle and tendon magic that makes your fingers move isn't actually in your hand at all—it all happens in your forearms, meaning your palms and fingers can be lighter, more maneuverable and less prone to damage. That's a trick DLR has copied in its design: The roughly human-sized hand has its fingers hooked up to electric drivers via 38 individual wires made of Dyneema—a synthetic material that's very strong and flexible, and is made of fibers much like a human tendon.
There are another 14 drivers that make the hand and arm move with so many degrees of freedom that it closely approximates a real human's dexterity. Add in over 100 sensors, and you've got something worth checking out on video.
So it's amazing, and it really does seem like a human hand. But could your hand take a beating from a baseball bat and still work fine? DLR's one can—thanks to those super-strong artificial tendons and clever spring assemblies that let the tendons "stretch." The way the tendons are arranged (in what's called an antagonistic manner) also means the "stiffness" or reboundability of each joint can be adjusted in real time by the arm's computers. This trick even lets it safely catch a fast-moving ball (where previous robot appendages would suffer damage) because the springiness absorbs some of the incoming energy—just as your arm does. The DLR hand can also click its fingers, just for fun.
The idea is that hands like this will be much better for remote telepresence robotics, as exemplified by NASA's Robonaut experiment, as the robot's hands are much closer to a real human's. But it's also a sign that dexterous robots could one day work in an industrial setting at a high pace and handling materials that humans simply couldn't match. One flaw—current pricing would mean this system costs around $100,000 dollars ... although that's nothing that a factory stuffed with robot arms couldn't fix via mass production.
To read more news on this, and similar stuff, keep up with my updates by following me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.