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When I first ventured into robotics, I tackled an area related to my Mechanical engineering background, so I focused on the design and development of robotic grippers and end-effectors. The aim was to design grippers that mimic the performance of their human (and sometimes animal) counterparts. This includes work on humanoid grippers, insect-inspired robots, and others.
The switch to Robotics (2007 - 2010)
Soon after completing my Master's, I switched my focus to Robotics research, lacking the proper foundation in mechatronics, I embarked on a journey of self-learning and education; I read books, attended courses, enrolled in classes, and did a lot of practice. This journey culminated in my first funded research project, the RoboFriend.
The RoboFriend Project?
As the name implies, the RoboFriend project focused on creating a friendly robot, which is a robot that responds to human visual and voice commands while performing its operations. Considering I was a beginner in Robotics at the time, I decided to focus on the Gripper. So in this project, the focus was on developing the electro-mechanical systems for a human-like robotic gripper that responds to human visual/audio input while performing its task.
The first challenge was to select an effective actuation method for the fingers and wrist joint of the gripper, the challenge was/is the actuators need to small yet powerful. If the actuators were big, the gripper would become too big, cumbersome, and heavy to do its job, if it was too weak, it would not be able to carry or grip any item. The challenge was to achieve the right balance between gripping power to weight.
After many iterations and trials, we settled on the insect-inspired wire-controlled actuation. As shown in the figure, when the wire is pulled, the finger is closed, when released, the elasticity of the finger itself will act as a spring and return it to normal position, but controlling the pull and release of the wire, we can control the finger's movement. Although not a perfect recreation of the human finger (where each knuckle is independent), this was a good approximation and was sufficient for our project needs.
From there on, we were able to work with the robot and develop the "Friendly" part of the project. We programmed the actuators (of each finger and the wrist joint) to perform a number of pre-defined hand gestures, such as the Fist, Rock, Peace, Pointing, and Waving, as shown here.