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DARPA bomb disposal bot has human-like hands

A bomb-disposal robot designed for DARPA has hands created from prosthetics designed for amputees.

(Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET Australia)

A bomb-disposal robot designed for DARPA has hands created from prosthetics designed for amputees.

DARPA's Big Dog and Cheetah robots have haunted the nightmares of some, but one of the latest robots to come out of the defence research group has our vote for the creepiest robot the program has produced, hands down — even though its purpose is friendly.

Designed by roboticists at John Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, Robo Sally is part of DARPA's Revolutionising Prosthetics program, which seeks to design better prosthetics options for soldiers wounded on the field.

But those fancy-pants, high-end prosthetic limbs have possibilities beyond restoring limb function to amputees; namely, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD). To date, the US military has conducted around 25,000 EOD missions in Iraq, leading to 30 fatalities — a number that would have been much higher if not for EOD robots.

Bombs, however, are fragile things, and robots — without nerve endings and the ability to make split-second contextual decisions — can be a bit clumsy. Instead of creating entirely new robotic arms, the roboticists at APL hit on a novel solution: using prosthetic hands, which have already advanced to a point where they can replicate the fine motor movements of which a human is capable.

The the Bimanual Dexterous Robotics Platform (BDRP), or Robo Sally (looking like a cross between Number 5 and the Cat with Hands), is the result. Mounted on four wheels like a robo-centaur, her head boasts two cameras for eyes, and her entire body has 42 individual degrees of control — 17 in each limb, three each in the torso and neck and two in the mobility platform. And, of course, there's the prosthetic arms, which are able to grip 23 kilograms and pinch 4.5 kilograms (the average male grip strength is 44.8kg, and the average female grip strength is 26.5kg).

How she is controlled is even more interesting: a human "pilot" uses a variety of gadgets to drive her around. A pair of exoskeletal gloves that have sensors allow the user to control Sally's hand movements just by moving their own hands, while a visor lets the user not only see through Sally's "eyes", but also control her head movements. The robot is steered through a video-game-type controller, a joystick or a foot-controlled pressure sensor worn in the shoes.

M Kozlowski, a National Security Technology Department engineer working on Sally, said, "She is unlike any of the traditional EOD platforms. Most fielded EOD robots are racked vehicles with very low dexterity and a claw that can move in three, maybe five ways. Sally has stereo vision. The operator can see what she sees in 3D. She has motion-tracking features that allow the neck to pan with the operator's movement. And her limbs can fully mimic the operator's motion."

If Sally can save lives, that will be a tremendous thing. But if soldiers start disappearing, and then some horrendous human-robot monstrosityshows up out of nowhere, we reserve the right to say "I told you so".