DARPA’s Amazing New Cyberarms

New video cleared by DARPA shows robotic arms agile enough to pick up keys and playing cards.

When DARPA decided to call their next generation of robotic pesudo-limb products ARMs–Autonomous Robotic Manipulation–they thought it was a pretty good pun. But while DARPA’s ARMs have a clever name, prototypes released by the agency also have amazing technical abilities: They’re the first robotic arms that can pick up keys, grab playing cards, and open and close locked doors.


Conventional robotic arms have a very limited range of motion. Robotic manipulators used in factories, emergency response situations, military settings, academic research, and in other situations are designed to do one repetitive, programmable task over and over again. These arms, which have been in operation in various forms since the 1970s, lack the dexterity and autonomous behavior ability to perform complex tasks.

DARPA is collaborating with researchers at iRobot, Harvard University, Yale University, and other institutions on the ARM. The robotic manipulators, which are still in prototype mode, have clunky fingers designed to quickly grasp objects and autonomously manipulate them. These hands work largely on their own and interact with their environment using sophisticated sensors and a small arsenal of software code; once perfected they could have transformative impact for industry, health care, law enforcement, and warfighting. Most importantly, they’re designed to be low-cost and will be cheaply manufactured at scale.

Fast Company reporters were given a demonstration of an earlier ARM prototype from iRobot in 2012; the robotic arm easily grasped a mobile phone, a small toy, and keys. The movements of the robotic limb required agile manipulation of hard-to-pick-up objects; the ARM picked up these objects quickly and with minimal fuss. Experimenters working with the system even got the robot to change tires on a car, albeit very, very slowly.

In the video above, a version of the ARM called the ARM-H successfully lifts a 50-pound weight, opens and closes locked doors, picks up keys, picks up small ball bearings, and even grabs a Boston MBTA farecard. Using sensors, the robot detects the location of an object and calculates the correct hand motion, force, and trajectory needed to grab an object. Once the object is in hand, the ARM-H calculates how to manipulate the object in space to perform a given task–something that requires a heroic amount of coding and engineer work.

Beyond iRobot’s prototype, many other organizations are also working on low-cost DARPA-funded robotic arms such as Sandia National Laboratories, SRI International, and Barrett Technologies.

A formal release date for a marketable version of the ARM has not been announced yet; once it hits market, the low-cost robotic limbs can be used for everything from prosthetics to defusing bombs to intricate factory work to telesurgery work.


[Video, image: iRobot]