This Pittsburgh company is building a robotic hand for the US Navy to safely defuse mines


Human touch is an incredible sense, and the human hand is an incredible tool. We can pluck feathers and lift dumbbells. We can grip rough rock cliffs, gently hold raw eggs and discern tiny molecular level differences in surfaces. And we can hit a nail on the head with precision, handle 50-pound boxes, or gently tap a smartphone.

Can a robotic hand ever get this good?

“Absolutely. It’s only a matter of time,” says Jorgen Pederson, chief operating officer of Sarcos Robotics, in a recent TechFirst podcast.

With partners at UCLA and the University of Washington, Sarcos is building STARFISH, a human robotic hand that the US Navy can use to investigate, loosen and defuse underwater mines or improvised explosive devices. The idea is that a Navy expert will eventually be able to “smell” the object the robotic hand is touching while staying away from any potential explosions.

“We’re developing a conformable underwater hand that has the ability to feel,” says Pederson. “It provides that conformable grip where you can feel, and that’s really important if you think about some of the tasks that Navy divers are asked to do. Often they are found in murky waters where your visibility is limited.

STARFISH is short for “Strong Tactile mARitime hand for Feeling, Inspecting, Sensing and Handling”, because – of course – every military project needs a long, complicated name that resolves into a friendly acronym. Dr. Veronica Santos of UCLA and Professor Jonathan Posner of the University of Washington are developing some of the basic science, and Sarcos is implementing it in real-world robotics. To complete the project, the company will need to merge at least four distinct but related technologies: the ability to “feel” a surface, the ability to understand, at some level of the machine, what the robot is touching, the ability to manipulate and move it in complex ways, and the ability to transmit all of this to a remote human operator.

Navy personnel are ideally in the loop to provide information and advice on a human level, but this is not always possible.

Sarcos therefore designs the robotic hand with a certain autonomy.

“Where we’re moving towards the concept of supervised autonomy, where you push more of the thinking, the AI, the software, down onto the platform and let it come full circle,” Pederson says. “You can have a very tight control loop locally with the robot. And then you just provide higher level feedback commands to the operator and ask for guidance on how to move forward with the mission.

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Defusing, of course, might be out of the question. It’s hard enough on land under controlled circumstances with world-class experts. The ocean, however, is anything but controlled.

So Sarcos is also designing the system to be able to autonomously swim to the general area where a threat has been detected, find it, attach an explosive device to it, arm that explosive device, and then “make it safe,” as Pederson puts it, at a reasonable distance. The US Navy awarded the company a $9.5 million contract in 2021 for the program, called the Maritime Mine Neutralization System.

Non-military uses of the same technology, however, include the maintenance of complex offshore infrastructure for the oil and gas industry. This includes tasks such as inspecting welds on oil rigs, inspecting and measuring mooring lines. and valve inspection and handling, the company says.

The interesting part, of course, is to build something analogous to a human hand.

While he doesn’t necessarily need to be anthropomorphic or have five fingers, Pederson says, he does need to be conformable in order to handle non-standard situations, tools and objects. STARFISH currently has three fingers, and currently they are accurate enough to grab tweezers as well as larger and heavier objects. It also has “a multi-modal tactile sensor skin that allows the gripper sensory fingertips to sense normal and shear forces.” says the company.

Elon Musk and Tesla, of course, are trying to go even further with the Tesla Bot, which is due to be unveiled at the company’s upcoming “AI Day” on September 30. Tesla Bot is, the company said“the next generation of automation…a general-purpose, two-pedal humanoid robot capable of performing hazardous, repetitive, or boring tasks.”

Fully humanoid robots are probably pretty far-fetched with current technology, according to at least one MIT roboticist I’ve talked to.

But it’s essential to build at least human-level capability into our robots.

“What we’re trying to achieve is to achieve that real human capacity,” Pederson says. “To do these more difficult tasks you have to start to incorporate more human capacities and one of them is that the ability to feel, to feel good…to touch is also a very powerful sense that needs to be incorporated for us. take it to the next level, and that’s exactly what we’re striving to solve.

To date, Sarcos has at least managed to build the STARFISH hand and test it successfully. Then, according to the company, these are real sea trials.

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