The easiest way to make a robot as dexterous and capable as a human being is to simply let a human control it. That’s how Disney Research’s new telepresence robot works, but with improved hydraulics on board, it’s now capable of duplicating a human’s motions with remarkable precision—to the point where it can even be used to remotely thread a needle.

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Disney Research’s latest creation is far from the first telepresence robot to be revealed. In fact, the technology has been used to allow robotic figures in theme parks to react to and interact with park guests thanks to a performer hiding nearby.

What’s innovative about this telepresence robot is its use of a new hybrid air and water hydraulics system that allows its arms to more closely mirror the movements of a human operator, and also provide near-instantaneous physical feedback, which allows for finer control. By using a mix of hydraulic and pneumatic lines, there are half as many cables running through the robot’s limbs, which reduces its weight, its overall size, and increases its response time and precision.

A set of stereo cameras on the robot’s head provides real-time feedback to an operator wearing 3D goggles so that they can accurately manipulate its arms without seeing what the bot is actually doing.

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There are some limitations to this approach, though. The human operator may not be required to see the robot to control it, but they must be relatively close to it as the controls they use are directly connected to the bot through those hydraulic and pneumatic cables. So using this system to, for example, inspect a nuclear power plant post-meltdown, might not be feasible. But Disney Research plans to use it to further study human-robot interactions, and it’s safe to assume the technology might one day end up in use in its theme parks.

[Disney Research]