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Safe and effective physical human-robot interaction: Approaches to variable compliance via soft joints and soft grippers

Giannaccini, Maria Elena

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Maria Elena Giannaccini


The work described in this thesis focusses on designing and building two novel physical devices in a robotic arm structure. The arm is intended for human-robot interaction in the domestic assistive robotics area. The first device aims at helping to ensure the safety of the human user. It acts as a mechanical fuse and disconnects the robotic arm link from its motor in case of collision. The device behaves in a rigid manner in normal operational times and in a compliant manner in case of potentially harmful collisions: it relies on a variable compliance. The second device is the end-effector of the robotic arm. It is a novel grasping device that aims at accommodating varying object shapes. This is achieved by the structure of the grasping device that is a soft structure with a compliant and a rigid phase. Its completely soft structure is able to mould to the object's shape in the compliant phase, while the rigid phase allows holding the object in a stable way.

In this study, variable compliance is defined as a physical structure's change from a compliant to a rigid behaviour and vice versa. Due to its versatility and effectiveness, variable compliance has become the founding block of the design of the two devices in the robot arm physical structure. The novelty of the employment of variable compliance in this thesis resides in its use in both rigid and soft devices in order to help ensure both safety and adaptable grasping in one integrated physical structure, the robot arm.

The safety device has been designed, modelled, produced, tested and physically embedded in the robot arm system. Compared to previous work in this field, the feature described in this thesis' work has a major advantage: its torque threshold can be actively regulated depending on the operational situation. The threshold torque is best described by an exponential curve in the mathematical model while it is best fit by a second order equation in the experimental data. The mismatch is more considerable for high values of threshold torque. However, both curves reflect that threshold torque magnitude increases by increasing the setting of the device. Testing of both the passive decoupling and active threshold torque regulation show that both are successfully obtained. The second novel feature of the robot arm is the soft grasping device inspired by hydrostatic skeletons. Its ability to passively adapts to complex shapes objects, reduces the complexity of the grasping action control. This gripper is low-cost, soft, cable-driven and it features no stiff sections. Its versatility, variable compliance and stable grasp are shown in several experiments. A model of the forward kinematics of the system is derived from observation of its bending behaviour.

Variable compliance has shown to be a very relevant principle for the design and implementation of a robotic arm aimed at safely interacting with human users and that can reduce grasp control complexity by passively adapting to the object's shape.


Giannaccini, M. E. Safe and effective physical human-robot interaction: Approaches to variable compliance via soft joints and soft grippers. (Thesis). University of the West of England. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Publicly Available Date Jun 5, 2019
Keywords Soft robotics, variable compliance, robot safety
Public URL
Award Date Nov 23, 2015


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