A new bomb disposal robot developed at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) is blurring the line between advanced prosthetics and robotics. Rather than building arms and hands from scratch specifically for the robot, the Bimanual Dexterous Robotics Platform (BDRP) is equipped with artificial limbs designed for amputees. The combination is relatively unique, and provided the team with a secondary use for the Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL) it developed for the DARPA Revolutionizing Prosthetics program.

The BDRP (aka Robo Sally) has always been equipped with a pair of cameras for a head and prosthetic arms, but it has gone through a number of changes since it was first unveiled in 2008. Originally balancing on a Segway-like mobile platform with just two wheels, it now motors around on four wheels to better tackle uneven terrain. The bulk of its electronics have also been moved to the back seat, considerably slimming its figure.

Altogether the robot has 42 degrees of freedom, with three in the neck, three in the torso, two in the mobile platform, and the rest located in its pair of prosthetic arms and hands, which sport 17 apiece. Thanks to its scalability, the MPL can contain fewer moving parts than the version for amputees (which has a total of 25), making it less expensive to replace in the event an inspection goes boom.

Ultimate control for better safety

The robot is controlled by multiple people, with one operator driving it around while another teleoperates its arms and hands with a special glove. The glove contains sensors which provide an incredible degree of near real-time control. This includes the movement of individual finger joints, which gives the operator the ability to interact with a wide variety of objects with minimal effort.

When combined with a stereoscopic visor that relays the robot's point of view, the set-up provides an unprecedented level of control that could make all the difference between a successful or failed mission. Currently there doesn't appear to be any tactile feedback in the glove, resulting in some fumbling, but it's still a marked improvement over the simple gripper arms of previous inspection robots.

In mock scenarios, the operators delicately uncovered an improvised explosive device (IED) from a canvas sack, drove across varied terrain to secure a perimeter, and stopped a vehicle at a checkpoint, even inspecting the driver's ID card. However, one of the more interesting scenarios of opening a lock box in the back of a truck was made significantly easier for them by having the vehicle's doors and the box itself already unlocked and open.

The BDRP's impressive capabilities make it a shoe-in for DARPA's Mobile Manipulation program, and could save lives if it's ever put to real work. Furthermore, it gives us an idea of what to expect from the upcoming DARPA Robotics Challenge, which will be capped off with a similar demonstration. However, the robots competing in that challenge won't have the benefit of the MPL, so it will be interesting to see how their arms and hands stack up to it.

You can watch the BDRP in action in the following video, followed by a second video demonstrating the incredible accuracy of the MPL.

View gallery - 18 images