Dec 20, 2018 | By Thomas

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have developed a 3D printed robotic hand which can play simple tunes on the piano. The robotic hand plays simple musical phrases on the piano by just moving its wrist. Scientists have said the 3D printed robot demonstrates just how complex the mechanics of the human hand and how challenging it is to replicate.

The robot hand was made by 3D printing soft and rigid materials together to replicate of all the bones and ligaments in a human hand, but not the muscles or tendons. The researchers found that a surprisingly wide range of movement was still possible by relying on the hand's mechanical design.

The hand cannot move its fingers independently, but can play simple musical phrases to mimic different styles of piano playing by moving its wrist – known as ‘passive’ movement.

"We can use passivity to achieve a wide range of movement in robots: walking, swimming or flying, for example," said Josie Hughes from Cambridge's Department of Engineering, the paper's first author. "Smart mechanical design enables us to achieve the maximum range of movement with minimal control costs: we wanted to see just how much movement we could get with mechanics alone."

The 3D printed robotic hand was 'taught' to play a number of short musical phrases with clipped (staccato) or smooth (legato) notes, and pieces by composers such as Mozart, Scarlatti and Gershwin, as well as seasonal songs including Jingle Bells.

"It's just the basics at this point, but even with this single movement, we can still get quite complex and nuanced behaviour," said Hughes.

Over the past several years, 3D printing has allowed researchers to add complexity to these passive systems. However, recreating all the dexterity and adaptability of the human hand in a robot is still a massive research challenge. Most of today's advanced robots are not capable of manipulation tasks which small children can perform with ease.

"The basic motivation of this project is to understand embodied intelligence, that is, the intelligence in our mechanical body," said Dr Fumiya Iida, who led the research. "Our bodies consist of smart mechanical designs such as bones, ligaments, and skins that help us behave intelligently even without active brain-led control. By using the state-of-the-art 3D printing technology to print human-like soft hands, we are now able to explore the importance of physical designs, in isolation from active control, which is impossible to do with human piano players as the brain cannot be 'switched off' like our robot."

"Piano playing is an ideal test for these passive systems, as it's a complex and nuanced challenge requiring a significant range of behaviours in order to achieve different playing styles," said Hughes.

Despite the limitations of the robot hand, the researchers say their approach will drive further research into the underlying principles of skeletal dynamics to achieve complex movement tasks, as well as learning where the limitations for passive movement systems lie.

"This approach to mechanical design can change how we build robotics," said Iida. "The fabrication approach allows us to design mechanically intelligent structures in a way that is highly scalable."

"We can extend this research to investigate how we can achieve even more complex manipulation tasks: developing robots which can perform medical procedures or handle fragile objects, for instance," said Hughes. "This approach also reduces the amount of machine learning required to control the hand; by developing mechanical systems with intelligence built in, it makes control much easier for robots to learn."

The findings of the project is reported in the journal Science Robotics.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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