Cyberhand, Shape-Shifting Robots Lead Europe's Robotics Efforts

The metallic fingers close around yours in near-perfect synchrony, then tighten their grip as you try to pull away.

For now, it is a computer that orders "Cyberhand" to greet you at the robotics lab where researchers have spent the past 3 1/2 years creating the first prosthetic hand capable of eliciting natural sensory signals.

If all goes well, researchers say this bionic hand could be implanted on human arms two years from now, its wired joints discreetly covered by a synthetic glove.

Cyberhand would allow the maimed to have "the feeling of touching things," says Paolo Dario, the project's coordinator at the Polo Sant'Anna Valdera institute in this central Italian town.

The hand is the fruit of cooperation between six teams working in four European countries — Italy, Germany, Spain and Denmark. For Dario, it is also an example of Europe's enormous — but still relatively underfunded — potential in the fast-expanding field of robotics.

"We have a network, we know how to work together. We are ready to make a leap ahead," he said.

Financed with $1.8 million from a special European Union fund for emerging technologies, Cyberhand was cited as a success by European Commission officials in October when they appealed to governments and industry to give robotics more financial backing.

Increased funding is essential, they said, if Europe is to exploit robotics' vast economic potential and compete with projects in the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

Each year, the commission and EU nations combined spend $100 million on robotics research. Japan and Korea each spend about the same, while the United States spends up to $500 million — largely because of the huge demand for military-related robotics, researchers and EU officials say.

In Dario's view, Europe's strength in robotics is in a broad approach that is also perhaps more sensitive to the social and ethical issues raised by the increasing use of robots to help humans with everyday tasks.

The Cyberhand team and other European robotics research groups have been more apprehensive than the Japanese about bringing robotic technology into everyday life, says James L. Patton, a research scientist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago who has closely followed the Cyberhand project.

"They've been pioneers in launching those considerations: what is an acceptable practice for robots, how do we make robots safe, are they safe, psychologically how will they influence people and their behavior?"

In contrast, several robotics experts said, Japanese projects tend to be showier in hopes of making a media impact and attracting funding.

The Cyberhand team not only has tried to develop a hand that would provide greater grip and control for an amputee, but it also has been concerned about the hand's aesthetics.

Giovanni Stellin, one of the Cyberhand researchers, said many patients were ashamed or self-conscious about using the less sophisticated, pincer-mechanism, prosthetic hands developed after World War II and still on the market.

Cyberhand would be attached to amputees below the elbow and covered by several layers of synthetic material that would seek to copy the features of a natural hand by making the prosthetic replacement soft, compliant, and flexible.

Patton says it represents "the first prosthetic hand that really is fully integrated into the nervous system." Linked to the nerves by tiny electrodes and biomimetic sensors, it would let patients sense the position and movement of the hand as well as stimuli from the outside environment.

Though researchers in the United States have covered similar ground, they have not addressed the problems of electrodes, prosthesis, sensory feedback, control, and processing of commands all together, said Silvestro Micera, a Cyberhand researcher.

That type of teamwork is more likely to flourish in Europe, where technology partners are accustomed to working in transnational consortiums, said Micera.

What remains to be seen, Patton says, is whether the materials used for Cyberhand will be compatible with the human body, how a patient's brain will adapt and how the hand can be powered.

Another project touted by European officials is HYDRA, a project coordinated from Denmark that is developing the world's first shape-shifting robot. It is made up of modules, each containing its own processors, batteries, sensors and actuators, which can attach and detach from each other so the robot can change its physical form.

Such a robot could be used, for example, in relief efforts after an earthquake, said Henrik Hautop Lund, a professor at the University of Southern Denmark and HYDRA's coordinator.

Having driven to a site, the robot could transform into a crawler to climb over debris, a snake to get through a hole, or columns to hold up a collapsed building and protect a survivor.

HYDRA has developed 100 modules, and Lund is looking for industrial partners who would invest in manufacturing the robot and put it to use. The project, begun in 2001, has received $2.1 million — about two-thirds of its total funding — from the EU.

Like Dario, Lund argues that Europe has an advantage in its more integrated approach to robotics. But he also notes the financial constraints.

Member states have failed to agree in recent months on the EU's 2007-2013 budget, so researchers still don't know how much support they will receive, sparking concern that projects could lose momentum.

"One of the problems Europe has had in its robotics research has been getting it out to market as product," said Ken Young, chairman of the British Automation and Robotics Association.

"While we may have a good research network at (the) academic level, I don't see the big industrial players getting involved to the extent they do in Japan and Korea. Ultimately it is these people who will take it to market and make it a success. ...In the EU it strikes me we develop some great technology and then leave it for the rest of the world to pick up and exploit."