New Soft Robotic Hand Offers Affordable Design and Human-Like Abilities
Soft robotic systems are gaining popularity due to their ability to replicate the appearance, movements, and capabilities of humans and animals. However, many of these robots are difficult to produce on a large scale due to high component costs and complex fabrication processes. Addressing these challenges, researchers at the University of Coimbra in Portugal have developed a new soft robotic hand that is not only affordable but also easier to fabricate.
Pedro Neto, one of the researchers involved in the study, explained that while most robots are made of rigid materials, animals have both hard parts (skeletons) and soft parts (muscles). Taking inspiration from nature, the team integrated soft actuators with an exoskeleton, which can be produced using scalable techniques.
Compared to rigid robots, soft robotic systems are safer and more compatible with humans and animals in various environments. In the event of collisions with surrounding objects, humans, or animals, soft robots are less likely to cause significant damage or injuries.
The main objective of this recent work was to develop a soft robotic hand that is both safe and affordable. By achieving this, the hand can be deployed on a large scale, fueling new research and innovation in the field of robotics.
The researchers utilized finite element analysis to optimize the design of the hand before physically fabricating it, resulting in reduced prototyping costs. Regular 3D printing techniques were also employed to produce components in soft materials and molds in rigid materials.
The soft robotic hand is made up of various materials and features a carefully designed structure that replicates the appearance and functionality of human hands, including their movements and abilities. It consists of five soft actuators, each corresponding to a finger, and an exoskeleton that promotes finger bendability. The hand is equipped with an ON-OFF controller that maintains specified finger bending angles, enabling effective gripping of objects with varying shapes, weights, and dimensions.
Preliminary evaluations of the robotic hand through simulations and experiments have been highly promising. It has successfully grasped numerous objects with different characteristics.
The primary contribution of this research lies in the integrated design-fabrication system that utilizes finite element analysis to optimize the design before fabrication. This achievement has the potential to increase the accessibility of soft robotic hands, lower costs, and eliminate time-consuming design-fabrication procedures that typically rely on resource-intensive iterative workflows.
Moving forward, the soft robotic hand developed by the team could be used by academic teams and individual roboticists to test new artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms and computational tools aimed at advancing robot abilities. Additionally, its design could pave the way for the low-cost fabrication of humanoid robots that can assist humans in their daily activities.
Neto and his colleagues plan to improve the fabrication of soft actuators and sensors to enhance the accessibility of soft robots to a wider audience. They are also exploring the control of soft robots using artificial intelligence.
The new soft robotic hand with its affordable design and human-like abilities marks a significant advancement in the field of robotics. With potential applications ranging from assisting humans in everyday tasks to advancing AI algorithms, this innovation opens doors to exciting possibilities in the world of soft robotics.