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Helping Robots Get a Grip

3d rendering android robot thinking in office
Phonlamai Photo/Shutterstock

While science has come far in improving robotic hands from the pincers featured on the machines in early sci-fi films, there’s still an issue with making mechanical hands that are strong enough to grip things, but delicate enough not to break them. Now, researchers may have solved the problem. 

Working out of Michigan State University (MSU), a team of engineers tackled the problem by creating a robotic hand that is made from a core that resembles bone combined with air bladders. The construct is known as a flexible hybrid pneumatic actuator (FHPA), and it allows each finger on the hand to move independently of the others as air is let into or out of the bladders.

Giving Robots a Helping Hand

“The novel humanoid hand design is a soft-hard hybrid flexible gripper,” said lead author Changyong Cao, director of the Laboratory for Soft Machines and Electronics at MSU. “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.” 

Graphic showing how hand works and what it can pick up

This is not the first time air has been used to move robotic parts. Researchers at Harvard created a starfish-shaped air-powered robot in 2011; Disney built their robot Jimmy in 2016 and gave it fast and fluid maneuvers thanks to a mix of air and water in its actuators; and Stanford University took soft robotics to a new level with their snake-like Vinebot in 2017. By pairing this continually improving tech with a rigid internal framework, the researchers hope their hand will contribute to creating bots that can do even more than those we have working for us today. 

According to the engineers in the abstract of their paper, which has been published in the journal Soft Robotics:

“This new FHPA achieves a balance of required flexibility and necessary stiffness, and the resulting soft humanoid hand has the merits of fast response, large grasping force, low cost, lightweight, and ease of fabrication and repair, which shows promise for a variety of applications such as fruit picking, product packaging, and manipulation of fragile objects.”