Scientists engineer affordable safe soft robotic hand

The new robotic device is designed to be mass-produced.
Loukia Papadopoulos
The new soft robotic hand.jpg
The new soft robotic hand.

Alves et al. 

Soft robotics are all the rage with researchers coming up with new and improved developments all the time. There are soft robots that mimic muscles, soft robots that squeeze into tiny places, soft robots that are designed to function like seals and even soft robots that split into smaller units.

There is a good reason why scientists are determined to keep producing these devices. The gentle machines hold a better promise of adapting well with human populations but so far have been notoriously expensive to engineer which made them difficult to mass produce.

Now, that hurdle might have been overpassed. A new Tech Xplore report published on Saturday is revealing that University of Coimbra in Portugal scientists have managed to produce a new soft robotic hand that is easier to f and more cost-competitive than traditional models.

Observing animals for inspiration

"Most robots are made of rigid materials," Pedro Neto, the lead scientist behind the new hand, told the science new outlet. 

"However, when we observe animals, we notice that their bodies can be composed of hard parts (skeletons) and soft parts (such as muscles). Some animals, like earthworms, are entirely soft-bodied. Taking inspiration from nature, we anticipate that the next generation of robots will incorporate components made of soft materials or, in some cases, they can be entirely soft-bodied."

In addition to being more affordable, the novel hand can better mimic real human movements having been designed to accurately replicate a real body part. In order to ensure the device was mass-producible the researchers made use of 3D printing and finite element analysis. 

The end result was an optimized design with improved operability. The researchers achieved this high agility by using actuators to design almost lifelike-fingers.

"The robotic hand's configuration consists of five soft actuators, each corresponding to a finger, and an exoskeleton to promote finger's bendability," Neto told Tech Xplore. "An ON-OFF controller maintains the specified finger bending angles, enabling the hand to effectively grip objects of varying shapes, weights, and dimensions."

Handling a variety of objects

The team of scientists tested their latest innovation and found that it performed well, showing the ability to grasp and handle a variety of objects safely. Now the researcher and his colleagues are dedicated to conducting further studies with the hand and even introducing artificial intelligence applications.

"Our next studies will focus on improving the fabrication of soft actuators and sensors, aiming to enhance the accessibility of soft robots to a wider audience," Neto added to Tech Xplore. "The control of soft robots using artificial intelligence is another research topic that we are working on."

He further noted that his new machine has the capacity to be mass-produced.

"This achievement has the potential to increase the accessibility of soft robotic hands while lowering costs and eliminating the typically time-consuming design-fabrication procedures, which frequently rely on resource-intensive iterative workflows,” told Tech Xplore Neto.

Their study is published in the journal Cyborg and Bionic Systems. The research is interesting to look at as it provides many images of the new robotic hand showcasing its versatility in handling a number of objects.

Study abstract:

Machines that mimic humans have inspired scientists for centuries. Bioinspired soft robotic hands are a good example of such an endeavor, featuring intrinsic material compliance and continuous motion to deal with uncertainty and adapt to unstructured environments. Recent research led to impactful achievements in functional designs, modeling, fabrication, and control of soft robots. Nevertheless, the full realization of life-like movements is still challenging to achieve, often based on trial-and-error considerations from design to fabrication, consuming time and resources. In this study, a soft robotic hand is proposed, composed of soft actuator cores and an exoskeleton, featuring a multimaterial design aided by finite element analysis (FEA) to define the hand geometry and promote finger’s bendability. The actuators are fabricated using molding, and the exoskeleton is 3D-printed in a single step. An ON–OFF controller keeps the set fingers’ inner pressures related to specific bending angles, even in the presence of leaks. The FEA numerical results were validated by experimental tests, as well as the ability of the hand to grasp objects with different shapes, weights, and sizes. This integrated solution will make soft robotic hands more available to people, at a reduced cost, avoiding the time-consuming design-fabrication trial-and-error processes.

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