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degrees of freedom

Degrees of freedom, in a mechanics context, are specific, defined modes in which a mechanical device or system can move. The number of degrees of freedom is equal to the total number of independent displacements or aspects of motion. A machine may operate in two or three dimensions but have more than three degrees of freedom. The term is widely used to define the motion capabilities of robots.

Consider a robot arm built to work like a human arm. Shoulder motion can take place as pitch (up and down) or yaw (left and right). Elbow motion can occur only as pitch. Wrist motion can occur as pitch or yaw. Rotation (roll) may also be possible for wrist and shoulder.

Such a robot arm has five to seven degrees of freedom. If a complex robot has two arms, the total number of degrees of freedom is doubled. In an android, additional degrees of freedom exist in the end effectors, the legs and the head.

Fully functional androids and multi-legged mobile robots can have more than 20 degrees of freedom. An example is Project Nao, an intelligent android designed for the consumer market. Nao, which looks superficially like a large space-age doll, has 25 degrees of freedom.


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This was last updated in July 2009

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