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Robotic Blues

3D Printed Robotic Hand Plays Holiday Tunes on the Piano

Picture of Tyler Koslow
by Tyler Koslow
Dec 27, 2018

Researchers from the University of Cambridge have created a 3D printed robotic hand that is able to play simple musical phrases on the piano – including the holiday classic Jingle Bells!

As the holiday season comes to a close and the New Year approaches, the endless and persistent parade of Christmas songs is finally coming to an end. We know you’re probably tired of Santa Claus-themed tunes banging on your eardrums like the Little Drummer Boy, but what if we told you that this next rendition of Jingle Bells was being played by a 3D printed robotic hand?

A team of scientists from the University of Cambridge recently developed a 3D printed robotic hand that can play simple musical phrases on a piano by moving its wrist. While it’s not quite able to recreate Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, the research aims to demonstrate the complexities of the human hand and how its movement can be replicated through design.

This robotic device is comprised of 3D printed soft and rigid materials that replicate the bones and ligaments found in the human hand. Without the muscles and tendons, the robot’s range of motion was expected to be highly limited. However, the researchers were surprised to find that the 3D printed hand had an impressive range of movement due to its unique mechanical design.

Using what is called passive movement, which means that the fingers are unable to move independently, the robot was still able to play different piano songs without changing its material or mechanical properties. The researchers believe that their findings, recently published in the journal Science Robotics, could lead to new robotic designs that use more natural movement and less energy.

Smart Mechanical Design Gives 3D Printed Robotic Hand Incredible Range of Motion

Take a quick look at your hands. Bend your knuckles and twiddle your thumbs. It turns out that the human hand is quite complex, isn’t it? In robotics, it’s incredibly challenging to recreate the dexterity and adaptability that make the human hand so versatile.

But by utilizing 3D printing to produce soft components, researchers are now able to add more complexity to passive robotic systems. In this case, the Cambridge team decided that piano playing would be the ideal test for the hand, as it requires a variety of behaviors to play different styles.

“The basic motivation of this project is to understand embodied intelligence, that is, the intelligence in our mechanical body. 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,” said Dr. Fumiya Iida, who led the research.

In order to teach the 3D printed hand how to play the piano, the scientists had to consider how the mechanics, material properties, environment, and wrist actuation impact the dynamic model. They discovered that by actuating the wrist, the researchers were able to decide how the hand interacts with the piano keys.

The robotic hand was programmed to play a number of short musical phrases with clipped or smooth notes. While the overall functionality of the system is limited, the research could help boost future research into the underlying principles of skeletal dynamics to achieve complex movement. The research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Source: Cambridge

License: The text of "3D Printed Robotic Hand Plays Holiday Tunes on the Piano" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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