How do we pick up a coin from the table? The easiest way is to slide it towards the edge of the surface, taking advantage of the fact that the table is smooth and flat. And put on a pair of shoes? The easiest way is to place your hand or finger between your foot and the back of the shoe. These are only a few of the apparently simple movements in which our hands make the most of the characteristics of the environment and objects to perform different types of manipulation. This is the key point of the European project 'SOMA' (SOft MAnipulation), which starts officially on the 1st May and which aims to develop an innovative system of artificial manipulation which is both simple and easy to program as well as being reliable and robust.
The Italian partners in the project, coordinated by the University of Berlin, are the University of Pisa and the Italian Institute of Technology of Genoa, who have been collaborating for a number of years on the study and creation of robot hands like the 'pisa-iit softhand', the winning project of the ERC Advanced Grant "SOFTHANDS", which, with a simple and robust structure, and a single motor, is capable of carrying out natural movements and grasping objects of everyday use.
"The key concept is the 'soft manipulation', " claims Antonio Bicchi, Professor of Robotics at the Research Centre 'E. Piaggio' of the University of Pisa and Senior Scientist at the IIT. "Manipulation which is able to adapt to the different physical characteristics of the environment in the same way as the human one does. This is made possible by the fact that the principal characteristics responsible for the ability to manipulate are not given by algorithms "inserted" into the hand, but are found directly in the physical structure of the hand itself, and they emerge from the interaction of these characteristics and those of the objects in the real environment which have to be manipulated. The environmental characteristics influence the design of the hand in the same way that the physical characteristics of water influence the design of the shape of a boat."
This paves the way for a new generation of industrial and service robots capable of operating in real environments along with human beings. Among the partners of the SOMA project there are in fact two industrial enterprises which will supply the first testing ground for the technology developed. The first is Ocado, the largest worldwide chain of supermarkets. The potential applications of SOMA in the field of agriculture and the food industry, for example manipulating objects such as fruit, with irregular shapes and which is easily damaged, are considerable. The second testing ground will evaluate the safety of the new manipulation systems in contexts where the robots must coexist and interact with human beings, thanks to the collaboration with Disney.
The partners in the SOMA project are the Technische Universität Berlin (Coordinator), the University of Pisa, the Italian Institute of Technology IIT, the German Aerospace Center, the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, Ocado Ltd. OCADO United Kingdom, Disney Research DISNEY Switzerland.