New Humanoid Robotic Hand Makes Human Interactions Safer

The robot hand, developed at Michigan State University, has a strong grip as well as a soft touch.
Chris Young

Perhaps the most longstanding argument commenters have made as to why robots won't take our jobs in the future is that they'll never have that human touch and that they'll always be lacking in that human quality only we can possess.

In a bid to put that argument to rest, Michigan State University (MSU) engineers have designed and developed a new humanoid hand that can hold objects much in the same way we do.


A novel humanoid robotic hand design

Robots used in industrial settings are often required to repeatedly grasp and manipulate objects. Typically, the machines do this with a robotic gripper, also known as an end effector. Current widely-used models don't display anywhere near the dexterity of a human hand, but this could soon change.

“The novel humanoid hand design is a soft-hard hybrid flexible gripper. It can generate larger grasping force than a traditional pure soft hand, and simultaneously be more stable for accurate manipulation than other counterparts used for heavier objects,” lead author Changyong Cao, director of the Laboratory for Soft Machines and Electronics at MSU said in a press release.

Cao and his team observed several human-environment interactions before designing their robotic hand model, including fruit picking and sensitive medical care. They presented their research in a paper titled, “Soft Humanoid Hands with Large Grasping Force Enabled by Flexible Hybrid Pneumatic Actuators,” published in Soft Robotics.

An advantage over soft-hand grippers

Generally speaking, soft-hand grippers used on many robots today present several disadvantages: they can have sharp surfaces, a weak grasp force for handling heavy loads, and poor stability. The MSU research team identified processes that most of these gripping systems are not suitable for processes that require a safe but firm interaction with a fragile object.

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The team explained that their prototype demonstrates capabilities for a responsive, fast, lightweight gripper capable of managing a lot of different tasks that typically require different types of gripping systems.

Each finger of the prototype humanoid hand is constructed from a flexible hybrid pneumatic actuator — or FHPA — which uses pressurized air to allow each of the fingers to move independently.

The best of both worlds

"Traditional rigid grippers for industrial applications are generally made of simple but reliable rigid structures that help in generating large forces, high accuracy, and repeatability," Cao said. "The proposed soft humanoid hand has demonstrated excellent adaptability and compatibility in grasping complex-shaped and fragile objects while simultaneously maintaining a high level of stiffness for exerting strong clamping forces to lift heavy loads."

The FHPA that makes up the robotic fingers is made of both hard and soft components. These are built around a structural frame made from a combination of actuated air bladders and a bone-like spring core, the researchers say.

“They combine the advantages of the deformability, adaptability, and compliance of soft grippers while maintaining the large output force originated from the rigidity of the actuator,” Cao explains.

Real-world applications and future use cases

The researchers believe the prototype could prove to be useful in real-world scenarios and situations, such as medical care, automated packaging, fruit picking, rehabilitation, and even surgery.

Where next for the team at Michigan State University? Cao and his colleagues hope to combine this new work with Cao's other recent work on so-called 'smart' grippers, which integrate smart sensors into the gripping material. They are also looking at the possibility of combining their robotic humanoid hand with 'soft arms' models, which would allow the machine to more accurately mimic human actions.

In the future, we might see robots that not only outthink us but also manage day to day tasks with dexterity and deftness of touch we previously thought only humans could muster.

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