At the University of Cambridge, researchers have created a 3D-printed robotic hand capable of playing the piano. The study was a testimony of the complexities and challenges involved in replicating the abilities of a human hand through robotic design. Results of the study were published in the journal Science Robotics.
Robotic Hand Playing the Piano, Credit: Josie Hughes via Science Daily
"We can use passivity to achieve a wide range of movement in robots: walking, swimming or flying, for example," explained first author, Josie Hughes, from the Department of Engineering at Cambridge. "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 robotic hand was developed using a 3D-printer that produced the soft and rigid materials that were placed together-- similar to human bones and ligaments. However, the only difference was there was no design for the muscles and tendons which limited a bit of the robot's range of motion in comparison to the human hand. Regardless, researchers were able to design amazing mechanics capable of a wide range of movements.
"The basic motivation of this project is to understand embodied intelligence, that is, the intelligence in our mechanical body," says Dr. Fumiya Iida. "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."
Researchers considered the mechanical properties, materials, as well as the environment when programing the robot to play music. "Piano playing is an ideal test for these passive systems, as it's a complex and nuanced challenge requiring a significant range of behaviors in order to achieve different playing styles," says Hughes. "It's just the basics at this point, but even with this single movement, we can still get quite complex and nuanced behavior.”