Hand Built Humanoid Robots, Part1: Introduction




Introduction: Hand Built Humanoid Robots, Part1: Introduction

Almost all humanoid robots large enough to be useful in a domestic setting are still built using a technology originally developed for car-welding factory robots - ultra-rigid metal bodies driven by super-precise electric motors.

This is why a robot moves like a robot - or like someone doing the the robot dance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YJ3BTKMILw

But whilst a human can imitate a robot, a robot cannot imitate a human, why? because those super-precise motors must always be switched on, always be engaged and always in total and absolute control of the exact movements of the robot - in short, it cannot relax.

This doesn't sound like a big deal.

But when you combine that with an ultra-rigid body it makes life very difficult indeed if you're a robot trying to clean the average home. Any error of judgement and that ultra-rigid arm is going to be super-precisely put through that glass tabletop.

Just a bump in the rug is enough to make the robot a few degrees off from where it calculated it was and bye-bye glass. This problem is fundamental to the factory robot approach because speeding up the reaction times enough to avert the accident also increases the potential damage that can be caused and slowing it down enough to never make mistakes renders the robot useless.

Factory robots rely on the closely controlled environment of the factory to operate at speed - saftey barriers and all. Take that away and they are just chunks of metal destroying the soft furnishings.

Picture yourself running past the glass table and picking the same juice glass up. You can do this because your body is elastic and by relaxing the right bits your hand can easily be made to skim along the surface of the table without damaging it.

This very simple difference makes all the difference.

You do not have to know precisely where the tabletop is, your little finger can find it and guide your arm along it as quick as you like because the muscles of your arm, back and shoulder can stretch to accommodate any errors.

So it's simple right? just add elasticity to an ultra-rigid factory robot and surely it could do the same thing? Well no, because then it's no longer ultra-rigid, and that means your super-precise motors no longer know where they have just moved the robot to.

So you start adding springs and extra position sensors and force sensors and acceleration sensors and soon it's nothing like a robot you understand or have ever seen before. In fact, it seems to work a lot more like a biological system - and fortunately there are lots of working examples of humanoid biological systems to study - us.

One day we may be able to engineer it better, but for now we are still struggling to understand just why the human body is put together the way it is and how this gives rise to the incredible feats we are capable of: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vo0Cazxj_yc

What we present here and in the following instructables is our method to attempt to solve this riddle by building a succession of androids with bodies that function, as near as we can manage, by the same mechanical principles as our own.

The aim is to produce engineered copies of the internal mechanical anatomy and materials of the body. Everything from functioning copies of the low friction surfaces of the joints to the patterns of muscles with motor driven tendons connected elastically in the same locations and manner as the real muscles.

This all sounds well and good but surely it's very expensive? Well, yes and no.

It's certainly been expensive developing how to do this and we've been lucky enough to have a couple of grants along the way but oddly the robots pictured below were entirely built by hand from relatively cheap components with simple hand tools - salvaged screwdriver motors, speed controllers for R/C cars and homebrew microprocessor boards.

Total cost: <3000 $/Eur

(Approximate: 46 screwdriver motors x 15 $/Eur, 46 potentiometers x 10 $/Eur, 46 speed controllers x 27 $/Eur, 6 microprocessor boards x 30 $/Eur 5 kilos Shapelock (Polymorph) 100 $/Eur, Dyneema, webcam, speakers and other materials < 300 $/Eur, )

3k of bits for a full-size, functioning robot humanoid torso with 46 powered degrees of freedom, laptop not included...

Whilst that's chicken feed next to the 400k for a PR2 it's still more than most people's pocket money, but fear not, for under a hundred you can still make yourself a very respectable pair of hands.

So, let's get started.

The most important ingredient is Shapelock (Polymorph in Europe) which is used to hold everything else together and you can get an almost free sample (P&P) to play with here:

Shapelock sample: http://shapelock.com/page3.html

To really get the most out of it though you're gonna need a few more things...just the list below is enough to make a pair of fully working hands.


Shapelock (Polymorph) - the standard white stuff, a finger uses 10 to 15g
High performance string - this is for tendons so the stronger the better, Dyneema is the best and is used in fishing, sports and camping so should easy to find - 1.5 to 2mm diameter is plenty strong enough, allow 1m per finger
Bungee shock cord - the good stuff is marine grade for boats - 3 to 4mm diameter by 4cm per finger
Superglue - a slow setting gel type is much easier to handle, one tube will do dozens of fingers
Cold spray - also known as freeze spray, ice spray and instant cold spray, one can of the kind sold in plumbers stores should be fine
Teflon - a single bicycle gear cable liner or a packet of self-adhesive Teflon sheet (the type backed with a thin layer of double sided foam, not the thick heavy duty ones with a layer of solid rubber) as used for furniture sliders
Lycra - as used in sports gear, the stretchier the better, allow 10x10cm per finger
Aluminium tube, round - about 12mm or 1/2" diameter by 1m


Kitchen bowl - capable of holding freshly boiled water, glass is best so you can see the Shapelock (Polymorph) melting
Kettle - any will do
Microwave oven - any will do
Hot air gun - as used for paint stripping
Non-stick rolling mat - any cheap silicone rolling mat for pastry should be fine, Ikea also sell a transparent polypropylene work mat which is perfect and at a push the lid of a good size tupperware will do
Non-stick rolling pin - any cheap silicone rolling pin for pastry should be fine
Small piece of aluminium sheet - used for rolling out sausages of material, again you can get away with using a tupperware lid
Scissors - if you're using Dyneema get special Dyneema cutting scissors, no really
Side cutters - an old blunt pair is actually best
Pliers - the more leverage the better
Soldering iron - the soldering gun made by Weller gives much better control than a standard soldering iron

Once you've got all these things together it's time for Part 2: A primer on Shapelock (Polymorph) swiftly followed by Part 3: How to make a robot hand

Teacher Notes

Teachers! Did you use this instructable in your classroom?
Add a Teacher Note to share how you incorporated it into your lesson.

Be the First to Share


    • LED Strip Speed Challenge

      LED Strip Speed Challenge
    • Sculpting Challenge

      Sculpting Challenge
    • Clocks Contest

      Clocks Contest

    17 Discussions


    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Very nice! If you want to add one of our hands you can now print them with your own 3D printer or order one directly from Shapeways. Just search for therobotstudio on Thingiverse for the separate stl files or Shapeways for the assembled hand model.

    Let me know how you get on and we're always happy to help.

    Cheers, TRS


    5 years ago on Introduction

    hand requires bearings for cables---the rubbing--destroys the plastic----the plastic is very fragile

    Thanks. There are more videos on youtube and some 3D printed parts on thingiverse now but they're still a bit work in progress.

    What are you working on? We're happy to help with robot related questions...


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Very nice project - wish I'd seen it sooner.
    Do you have any further work to show? I've been working on a related project and your ideas here might help me resolve my hand design.

    sorry, didn't think anyone was out there...just finishing the latest arm now so should be able to put some more footage out in a few weeks - any preference as to which part we cover next?


    7 years ago on Introduction

    when are you going to do the next part ? ive been waiting a long time and its been almost a year!

    Video of how to prepare Polymorph/Shapelock posted here:


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Looks like part 3 is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHckJ3594U4


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Excellent. Looking forward to it!


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    this shows how to make the main structure of a finger, tendons should be going on soon.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Seems that instructables ate my last comment.

    I hadn't thought of using something like Dyneema to use as the actual finger joints!

    Wouldn't it fray after a while?

    Also, where did you source the motors?


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    The embedded dyneema makes the joint a lot stronger and should last for a few years, certainly tens of thousands of cycles. This can be improved by using a very fine grade of fibre, as opposed to the running tendons which are better with cord made of larger diameter fibres to resist abrasion.

    The gearbox-motors on this level of robot are taken straight out of consumer electric screwdrivers. There is a wide range of quality available and you can save a lot of money by buying a generic model: http://www.greatnecktools.com/products/show/80129
    The photo on this page shows a particular Chinese model I recommend that is rebadged by many vendors but is still recognisable by the shape of the handle and the position of the screws.

    I've been through every make I can find and what you're looking for is a high torque model, sometimes this figure will be quoted on the packaging and anything above 4Nm is good. The only way to really tell though is to buy one and then open it up and check that all the components in the gearbox are fabricated from metal.

    To get the best performance clean off all the thick grease they are assembled with and reassemble with a high quality light grease, I use a ceramic based bicycle chain oil.

    These types of screwdrivers typically have a locking mechanism at the end of the gearbox to allow manual use and it is best to disable this by removing the rolling pins between the last stage of the gearbox and the output shaft as otherwise the gearbox will completely lock-up under load.

    Let me know how you get on and if this needs more explanation I'll try to dig out some footage.