Scientists have made a 3D-printed robot hand that can play Jingle Bells on the piano. Researchers at Cambridge University said soft and rigid materials in the design replicate the bones and ligaments of a human hand, but not the muscles or tendons.
The hand cannot move its fingers independently, but can play simple musical phrases by moving its wrist – known as “passive” movement.
It was “taught” to play several tunes, including Jingle Bells, to test its dexterity.
Academics said the project shows how challenging it is to replicate all the abilities of a human hand, and how much complex movement can still be achieved through design.
“The basic motivation of this project is to understand embodied intelligence, that is, the intelligence in our mechanical body,” said Dr Fumiya Iida, who led the research.
“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.”
The findings of the project, reported in the journal Science Robotics, could help inform the design of robots that are capable of more natural movement with minimal energy use.
Josie Hughes, the paper’s first author, said: “We can use passivity to achieve a wide range of movement in robots: walking, swimming or flying, for example.
“Smart mechanical design enables us to achieve the maximum range of movement with minimal control costs: we wanted to see just how much movement we could get with mechanics alone.”
She added: “Piano playing is an ideal test for these passive systems, as it’s a complex and nuanced challenge requiring a significant range of behaviours in order to achieve different playing styles.”
Researchers said the project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, will drive further study of the underlying principles of skeletal dynamics to achieve complex movement tasks.