Trustable dexterous manipulation: morphologies and low-level control schemes for next-generation robot hand technologies

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Design Engineering


A multifingered robotic hand and an object that will be grasped and manipulated by the hand are the components of a dexterous manipulation robotic system. Then, the dexterous manipulation problem can be defined as the act of determining how to alter a grasp of an object through the coordinated motion of the fingers to reach a desired change in its position and orientation.

In structured environments, that is, in worlds whose characteristics are well known in advance, solving the dexterous manipulation problem reduces to optimising hardware and software for dealing with the specific objects and constraints present in the sought task. Since in these cases all possible ramifications are documented, the design optimisation usually concludes that multi-degree-of-freedom robot arms with simple two-finger jaw or vacuum grippers are enough to position and orient the manipulated objects; thus avoiding the difficulties associated with implementing robot hand dexterity.

In other words, as a result of the described analysis, fine manipulation, which refers to the manipulation of objects by small robot parts such as robotic fingers, hands, and wrists, is absorbed by gross manipulation, which refers to the manipulation of objects by large robot parts such as robotic arms or other types of limbs. This is certainly the typical situation observed in many of the current industrial applications, as demonstrated by the design of the most recent collaborative industrial robots.

The above reasoning gives a simple explanation about the lack of use of multifingered dexterous robotic hands in industrial settings, an aspect that have been the subject of discussion in the robotic manipulation community recently, and clearly opens the question about why this technology and research on the dexterous manipulation problem is a pressing need.

The answer of such a query is simple: the solution of some of the most relevant social, environmental, and economic challenges of this century, and beyond, (e.g., an efficient healthcare, coping with an ageing population, management of mega cities), requires robots that cooperate with humans to manipulate objects designed for human hands. Thus, given the diversity and uncertainty inherent of such settings, robot manipulation technologies require the cooperation, not the absorption, of gross manipulation and fine manipulation. Solving the problem of manipulating objects dexterously in unstructured environments is then a must.

However, despite the substantial progress made in the last 35-40 years in robotics, performing reliable dexterous manipulation operations under both shape diversity and shape uncertainty with a robot hand is still an open question. The aim of this research is to help solving this problem and shaping the next generation of robot hand technologies by investigating novel morphologies and low-level control schemes that drastically enhance the dexterous manipulation capabilities of current solutions.

Specifically, this research focuses on devising robot hands based on flexible and adaptive mechanical components that generate non-trivial predictable behaviours of the hand-object system that are able to be controlled in open loop, that is, without feedback control and without knowing the particularities of the object beforehand, while still being robust to the size or shape of the object being manipulated. This novel approach, called 'trustable dexterous manipulation', departs from traditional hand-centred strategies to embrace a holistic view that takes into account the manipulated bodies without losing generality; it has the potential to redefine the current practice in design of dexterous robot hands.

The success of this project will benefit researchers and practitioners working on technologies that involve robots collaborating with humans in dynamic and uncertain settings across multiple domains, including agriculture, healthcare, manufacturing, and extreme environments.

Planned Impact

Trustable dexterous manipulation has the potential to develop robot hand technologies better suited to reliably perform autonomous dexterous manipulation operations under high levels of diversity and uncertainty.

All researchers and practitioners working on technologies that involve robots collaborating with humans in dynamic and uncertain settings may benefit from the proposed project. The success of this research could certainly have wide influence across engineering and society.

Beneficiaries of this proposal include:

Economy and industry
I am fostering partnerships with two relevant companies, namely, Ocado and Shadow Robot Company, to keep the research grounded and speed up the translation of results into practice and commercialisation.

The above strategy is aligned with one of my main goals as an academic: the development of new robotics business and products that can benefit the UK economy and the global society from the success of innovative research.

Then, I will also use the success of this proposal to contact Imperial Innovations, the technology transfer office for Imperial College London, to learn how to address the commercial opportunities that my inventions may hold.

The success of this project will close the gap that separates current technologies from solving the open problem of manipulating objects autonomously and dexterously in dynamic and uncertain settings.

The project certainly has a significant societal impact since the solution of some of the most relevant social, environmental, and economic challenges of this century, and beyond, inherently involves that robots cooperate with humans in unstructured environments.

My idea is to achieve this societal impact by fostering partnerships with as many business and industries as possible that require robotics expertise to solve societal problems of high relevance.

This will be achieved by attending networking events organized by the Knowledge Transfer Network nearby London and participating in Innovate UK calls as academic partner.

The expected advances of the state of the art in dexterous manipulation resulting from the project are not only relevant for researchers of the robotic manipulation community, but also for those working in other areas of robotics and engineering.

I plan to provide early drafts of all resulting publications to all potential academic beneficiaries of my network to promote the wide academic impact of this proposal.

I also plan to maximize the impact of the research results by proposing a Special Issue in a well-recognized robotics journal. The topic will focus on recent advances in robot hand design and control for applications in healthcare, hazardous environments, and human-machine interaction, to name some.

I will use the Special Issue to submit a survey paper about the research work in the field, in which I plan to showcase the results of the project.

My objective is to strongly support the researcher to be funded by the project to gain the knowledge/experience required to become a successful academic or practitioner in the area of robotic dexterous manipulation.

To this end, I plan to promote management skills by giving responsibility for administration, delivery, and reporting of project tasks; encourage participation in the development of research proposals; and give opportunities to assist in teaching activities.

A fundamental impact of the project is on my academic career and professional esteem. The success of this proposal will certainly be a boost to my ongoing efforts to become a successful principal investigator.

I will use the project to strengthen the development of my research group (REDS Lab) as well as my capability and standing in robotic manipulation.
Description The award is still in progress.
Exploitation Route The award is still in progress.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Construction,Creative Economy,Healthcare,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology