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May 16, 2019      

UK firm Cambridge Consultants today announced the development of Hank, a robot with flexible robotic fingers that are inspired by the human hand. Through a new sensory system embedded in pneumatic fingers, Hank has “a sophisticated sense of touch and slip, meaning it can emulate the human ability to hold and grip delicate objects using just the right amount of pressure,” the company said.

Applications for Hank can include agriculture and warehouse automation, where picking small, irregular, and delicate items is one of the industry’s biggest challenges for robots.

Hank Soft Fingers grippers grasp

Cambridge Consultants developed Hank, a robot that can grasp delicate objects like grapes and other irregularly shaped objects.

“While warehouse automation has taken great strides over the last decade, today‚Äôs robots cannot emulate human dexterity at the point of picking diverse individual items from larger containers,” the company said. With e-commerce companies under pressure to deliver more quickly and at a cheaper price, human operators are still required for more difficult and tedious tasks. The company said giving a robot additional human-like senses let it feel and orient its grip around an object, applying just enough force while being able to adjust or abandon if the object slips.

Soft fingers, embedded sensors

The approach for Hank is through its soft robotic fingers, controlled by airflows that allow it to flex the finger and apply the right amount of force. This compares to other robots with articulated arms that require complex grasping algorithms and costly sensing devices and vision sensors to accurately position an end effector to grasp objects, Cambridge Consultants said. Because Hank’s fingers are controlled individually in response to the touch sensors, the end effector doesn’t require millimeter-accurate positioning. “Like human fingers, they close until they ‘feel’ the object,” the company said. In addition, Hank is able to apply increased force if a slip is detected, and generate instant awareness of a mishandled pick if the object is dropped.

“The logistics industry relies heavily on human labor to perform warehouse picking and packing, and has to deal with issues of staff retention and shortages,” said Bruce Ackman, logistics commercial lead at Cambridge Consultants. “Automation of this part of the logistics chain lags behind the large-scale automation seen elsewhere. Hank’s world-leading sensory system is a game changer for the logistics industry, making actions such as robotic bin picking and end-to-end automated order fulfillment possible.”

The hollow fingers are molded from silicone, and the sensors are embedded during molding, with an air chamber running up the center, the company said. In addition, the finger’s surface is flexible, safe for food handling, and cleanable. Because of the lower cost, the fingers can be replaced if they become damaged or worn.

Cambridge Consultants develops products, creates and licenses intellectual property, and provides business consultancy for clients worldwide. It’s unclear whether Hank will become a fully commercialized offering, or will be licensed through the client that Cambridge Consultants worked with on this project. More details on the company are available at its website.