Distinguished Seminar: Prof. Robert Howe

November 27, 2013


“Robot Hands for the Real-World”

Robert Howe, Ph.D.
Abbott and James Lawrence Professor of Engineering
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Harvard University
Friday, Dec. 6, 2013, 3:00 pm
Warnock Engineering Bldg. (WEB) 2230
Reception to follow at 4:00 pm
(All are invited)

Abstract:  Manipulating objects in human environments like homes and workplaces is challenging because object properties are not known a priori and sensing is prone to error. Research in this area has largely focused on anthropomorphic hands that are complex, fragile, and difficult to control. We are pursuing an alternate      approach that focuses on the passive mechanical behavior of the hand. By integrating carefully-selected joint compliance and adaptive transmissions, we have developed a simple and inexpensive hand that can grasp   objects spanning a wide range of sizes, shapes, weights, and positions, while using only one motor. The hand is constructed using polymer-based Shape Deposition Manufacturing (SDM), resulting in a robust design that can withstand large impacts. Experimental testing demonstrates that the SDM Hand can autonomously grasp objects despite large positioning errors, while keeping contact forces low. A new hand, the i-HY Manipulator, combines optimized passive mechanics with five motors for precision fingertip manipulation. We have also developed a low-cost sensor suite for these hands that includes distributed tactile sensors, flexure joint sensors, and piezoelectric contact sensors. By taking advantage of intrinsic finger compliance, these sensors can rapidly and effectively acquire essential object properties without complex and precise controllers. The combined hand and sensor system can deal with a wide range of objects and tasks, enabling effective grasping and manipulation in many real-world settings.

Bio: Robert D. Howe is Abbott and James Lawrence Professor of Engineering in the school of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University. Professor Howe founded the BioRobotics Laboratory in 1990, which investigates the roles of sensing and mechanical design in motor control, both in humans and in robots. His research interests focus on robot and human manipulation and the sense of touch. Biomedical applications of this work include the development of robotic and image-guided approaches to minimally invasive surgical procedures. Dr. Howe earned a bachelors degree in physics from Reed College, then worked as a design engineer in the electronics industry in Silicon Valley. He received a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University in 1990, and then joined the faculty at Harvard.