These days, artificial intelligence (A.I.) is the end all and be all. It’s like a magic word. But magic does not always lead to added value. As far as the Italian company qbrobotics is concerned, robotic hands can do very well with only “mechanical intelligence,” which for convenience is called M.I.
The so-called qb SoftHand is proof of this. This robotic hand for industrial applications is robust, lightweight and costs a fraction of other applications in robotics. We spoke with 35-year-old Fabio Bonomo, a computer scientist and the founder/owner of qbrobotics, based near Pisa, Italy.
The SoftHand is an anthropomorphic robotic hand designed specifically for use in industrial environmentsFabio Bonomo, qbrobotics
Robotic hands are not new. What makes the qb SoftHand so special?
We deliberately chose simplicity of use and control in the development. The only complexity is within the device. The mechanical heart makes the robotic hand intelligent. The hand is able to adapt naturally to the objects it picks up without the need for sophisticated sensors that require equally sophisticated electronic programming. The robot receives a simple input: It just needs to know whether to exert a soft or a strong grip. Then it is able to pick up anything you want, according to “mechalogics,” as we call it: the logic of mechanics.
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Can the hand also play the violin?
No, it can’t, and it won’t become the next Ludovico Einaudi, the famous pianist. Nor is it intended to. The SoftHand is an anthropomorphic robotic hand designed specifically for use in industrial settings, such as assembly, machine control, operation and quality inspection. It is a so-called cobot, a collaborative robot that can work completely autonomously but also jointly with humans. From the point of view of the hardware, the materials used and the flexibility of the system, the hand is safe in any situation on the shop floor.
What movements can be performed by the SoftHand?
The SoftHand can be compared to that of a newborn baby. It uses a grasping motion similar to when a baby grasps at its mother’s or father’s finger. This grip is the simplest and most basic form of hand movement. And with that, you have covered 60 to 75 percent of hand use. The drive system of the hand has only a single motor to open and close the five fingers together. Because the hand is made of soft materials, it can conform to the objects it holds, so it can firmly pick up a brick, but also carefully hold an egg between its fingers.
Why do you use electronics, not artificial intelligence?
Even though I don’t exclude the possibility that we will one day work with A.I., we have made a clear choice for mechanics. The advantage is that the SoftHand is not complicated, weighing about half a kilogram. It also has a long lifespan. The hand is compatible with numerous robotic systems and costs much less than other robotics. For less than €10,000, it is also possible for small to midsized companies to use robotics, i.e., the SoftHand, in their processes.
But surely robots could do more than a baby grip?
Yes, and there are certainly companies that are developing more complex hands with numerous motors and sensors. It’s a complex matter, also because the human hand is complicated which allows huge variation of movement.
There is certainly a need in the biomedical field for the development of robotics that can perform complicated tasks.
Are you also working on the development of a “bionic” hand?
Certainly, the SoftHand comes in two versions. The industrial one has already established itself on the market. Another application we have been developing for years is the soft prosthetic hand. We are making great progress. A scientist at IIT has been working with a pilot hand for years, but it’s going to take years before that soft hand is ready. The prosthesis is mounted on the forearm and the wearer controls the prosthesis with the muscles of the forearm by contracting them using sensors. With this, you can do most things, such as drive a car using the remote control, pick up a bottle of water – in short, all essential daily actions.
For prosthetics, the preferred application is soft robotics, a non-rigid structure that is flexible in its interaction with the environment and can adapt to the objects it encounters. This allows the SoftHand to take over lost motor functions.
The hand has also recently been used by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, correct?
The MIT in Boston has purchased a qb SoftHand to demonstrate the feasibility of the so-called third hand. Such a hand could be a godsend for performing more tasks simultaneously. For example, it can open the door for a package delivery person whose hands are literally full.
You don’t have any investors. Can you comment on that?
We started as a spin-off of both the University of Pisa and the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) with the aim of making the technological transfer from the laboratory to the industrial market. Our group of researchers financed themselves. We have also been helped by European funding. We have raised about two million euros in the last ten years, mostly European funding for research and innovation projects. For a few years now, we have been on the market with SoftHand and bringing in about a million euros a year.
This is an installment in the series of startups that have emerged from the inner workings of the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT). The IIT is particularly strong in robotics, nanotechnology and computer science. You can read more about this recently founded institute in an interview with the scientific director of Alessandro Volta.
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