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From the Lab: Information Technology

New publications, experiments and breakthroughs in information technology–and what they mean.

Getting a Grip
A new approach lets robots grasp objects more quickly.

Approach and grasp: These images show a grasping task. As a robotic hand approaches the flask (top), a planning algorithm positions the robotic fingers to achieve a sturdy grip (bottom).

Source: “Hand Posture Subspaces for Dexterous Robotic Grasping”
Matei T. Ciocarlie and Peter K. Allen
The International Journal of Robotics Research
28: 851-867

Results: Researchers at Columbia University have developed control algorithms for robotic hands–motorized grippers with three, four, or five fingers–that reduce the number of calculations required for the devices to grasp an object. Using the algorithms, a robotic hand was able to grasp a wide variety of objects, including a wine glass, a telephone, and an ashtray.

Why it matters: The advance could make robotic hands for prosthetics more useful by enabling them to grasp objects more quickly. The hand could be attached to a prosthetic arm, which the user would maneuver into place. As the hand neared an object, the system would position the fingers for the best possible grip. The person would then only have to push a button to trigger the hand to close around the object.

Methods: Conventional control strategies for robotic hands independently calculate the position each joint must assume to grasp an object. The researchers eliminated some of these calculations by using algorithms to virtually link the movements of the joints, so that the angle of one joint determines the angle of others. To test the algorithms, the researchers made three-dimensional scans of selected objects, which helped the system calculate which finger positions would produce a stable grasp.

Next steps: Whereas the current system must be programmed with the shape of an object, the researchers plan to develop a sensor system that allows the hand to grasp new objects on the fly.

Better Wireless
Unused portions of the TV spectrum could improve long-range Internet ­connectivity.

Source: “White Space Networking with Wi-Fi like Connectivity”
Paramvir Bahl et al.
ACM SIGCOMM Conference, August 18, 2009, Barcelona, Spain

Results: Researchers at Microsoft and Harvard University have developed software that makes it possible to deliver long-range wireless Internet access over unused or underused fragments of the electromagnetic spectrum, known as “white spaces.” Last November, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made white spaces in the part of the spectrum used by television stations available to unlicensed devices as long as they didn’t interfere with existing broadcasts from TV stations or from devices licensed to operate within that spectrum, such as wireless microphones. The new system uses algorithms to detect and avoid interference.

Why it matters: Wi-Fi works over ranges of only a few dozen meters, but the new system, which the researchers call “WhiteFi,” uses frequencies that can carry information much farther, allowing users to connect to a router from more than a kilometer away. WhiteFi could be useful for rural or citywide wireless networks.

Methods: In the new system, white-space devices are connected in a network with a central access point, and each device detects the frequency use around it. The researchers developed algorithms that compare these results to select a range of frequencies that all devices in the network can use without interfering with other broadcasts. The system also monitors the selected spectrum and quickly moves signals to a backup slice of spectrum if there is interference from neighboring frequencies or if other devices need to use it (for example, if a wireless microphone is switched on).

Next steps: The group at Microsoft Research recently received an experimental license from the FCC allowing it to build and test a prototype system that will span the Microsoft campus in Redmond, WA.

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