Aug 18, 2017 | By Tess

A group of engineers from the University of Antwerp in Belgium have put their skills towards good with the invention of a 3D printed humanoid robot that can translate speech into sign language. The inspirational bot is called “Project Aslan,” which stands for Antwerp’s Sign Language Actuating Node.

Project Aslan was started in 2014 by a team of three engineering masters students: Guy Fierens, Stijn Huys, and Jasper Slaets. The inspiration for the project came from the realization that there is a lack of sign language translators, especially in Belgium, where there is a need for not only French interpreters but also Flemish-speaking ones.

“I was talking to friends about the shortage of sign language interpreters in Belgium, especially in Flanders for the Flemish sign language,” explained Huys. “We wanted to do something about it. I also wanted to work on robotics for my masters, so we combined the two.

Fast forward three years, and the three students (as well as many others) have come a long way with their sign language interpreting robot, in part thanks to 3D printing technologies. As the students explain, they chose to use 3D printing, as well as easily obtainable and affordable components, in order to keep Project Aslan accessible.

The research project, which is being sponsored by European Institute of Otorhinolaryngology, currently consists of a 3D printed robotic arm with articulated fingers controlled by dedicated software. When the user types text into the software, the robotic hand translates the text into sign language.

The robotic arm is connected to a local network which enables users from anywhere in the world to input messages that the hand can then spell out in sign language. The local network also allows the robot to look for new updates in sign languages.

3D printing was used extensively in the prototyping of the robotic hand, as the first prototype reportedly consisted of 25 3D printed parts, as well as numerous servo motors, motor controllers, an Arduino Due, and more. The printed parts were made on a standard desktop 3D printer using PLA filament, and the bot reportedly took 10 hours to assemble once printing was done.

With the first iteration of the robotic hand complete, the Antwerp researchers are passing their knowledge on to the next generation of masters students, who will continue to work on the project in new and innovative ways.

Possible directions for the robot hand include developing a two-arm setup, adding an expressive face to the robot, and exploring whether a webcam could be used to make the robot smarter. As the researchers explain, sign language requires movements and expressions from not only hands, but also shoulders and the face, so a webcam could potentially be integrated in order to teach a more developed robot the nuances of facial expressions and shoulder movement.

Ultimately, the researchers are not aiming to automate the profession of sign language interpretation, but to offer a potential and accessible solution in cases where no translator is available. As the project advances, the research team says it plans to make its designs for Aslan open source so that anyone can build the 3D printed sign language robot.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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