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Cheaper Joints and Digits Bring the Robot Revolution Closer

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The "hand" of Boston Dynamics' Atlas humanoid robot.

A new kind of electrostatic clutch from SRI makes this design around 10 times cheaper than previous robotic hands, which could cost $35,000 or more.

Credit: SRI International, iRobot

Boston Dynamics' Atlas humanoid robot costs well over $1 million and consumes 15 kilowatts of electricity when running, and SRI International is working to rethink the machine's design to retain its capabilities while trimming its power consumption by a factor of 20. Essential to this is replacing the hydraulics that actuate the robot's joints with a smaller number of lighter, more efficient, and less expensive electric components.

SRI's Rich Mahoney says such efficiency-boosting design strategies have become a key concentration in robotics research as engineers strive to move technologies out of the lab. "Manipulation is simply not available at [an affordable] level now," he notes. "But it can be." Mahoney says inexpensive components would enable humanoids such as Atlas to become standard safety equipment.

Meanwhile, Unbounded Robotics CEO Melonee Wise thinks that in the more immediate term, such innovations could give the service robotics market a boost. Service robots are designed to work alongside humans and perform human-scale tasks, and Unbounded machines' capabilities could be expanded thanks to low-cost robotic hands, including an appendage with three digits and considerable dexterity. The hands, co-developed by iRobot, use rubber in the joints to introduce springiness so they can grip an object.

From Technology Review
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