The main obstacle to a wide-spread adoption of advanced manipulation systems in industry is their complexity, fragility, lack of strength, and difficulty of use.
Soft Manipulation (SOMA) opens a path of disruptive innovation for the development of simple, compliant, yet strong, robust, and easy-to-program manipulation systems.
Robotic hands grasping delicate objects
SOMA explores a new avenue of robotic manipulation with the environment, as opposed to manipulation of or in the environment. In this approach, the physical constraints imposed by objects in the environment and the manipulandum itself are not regarded as obstacles, but rather as opportunities to guide functional hand pre-shaping, adaptive grasping, and affordance-guided manipulation of objects. The exploitation of these opportunities enables robust grasping and manipulation in dynamic, open, and highly variable environments.
Child exploiting Environmental Constraints to grasp an object
The key ingredient for the exploitation of the Environmental Constraints is softness of hands, i.e. their embodied ability to comply and adapt to features of the environment. The traditional paradigm for robotic manipulation is in complete disarray in front of this shift of focus: state-of-the-art grasp planners are targeted towards rigid hands and objects, and attempt to find algorithmic solutions to inherently complex, often ill-posed problems. Further complicating matters, the requirement of planning for soft, uncertain interactions between hand and environment is entirely beyond the state of the art.
However, this is how humans most often use their hands, and how we plan to change robotic manipulation.
SOMA will design capable soft hands for the versatile and competent exploitation of the Environmental Constraints, and develop versatile, robust, cost-effective, and safe robotic grasping and manipulation capabilities.
The developed Soft Manipulation technology will be applied to an open manipulation problem in the food and agriculture industry, that is the handling of irregularly shaped, flexible, and easily damageable goods, such as fruit and vegetables, and to a security problem in a field, such as that of entertainment, when human and robots have to physically interact.