Innovative robotic hand manages to be strong and delicate at the same time

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Researchers at Stanford University in the USA have developed robotic hands inspired by the skill and dexterity of human hands that can easily switch between an extremely strong grip and lighter, smoother and more delicate movements, all in real time.

To give the device this remarkable capability, engineers combined stickers based on the geckos’ fingers with a state-of-the-art custom mechanical system, making the device capable of performing tasks unlikely for a robot.

“You can even see robotic hands performing a more powerful and precise grip, but finding a middle ground is very difficult. What we did was create skilled and strong manipulators at the same time, which modify the intensity of the grip according to the characteristics of the object they intend to hold”, explains engineer Wilson Ruotolo, co-author of the study.

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biological inspiration

Nicknamed FarmHand, the robotic hand was built on two biological inspirations. While the multi-jointed fingers carry all the characteristics of a human hand, the surface covering of these fingers has a material similar to that found on gecko fingers.

As with the reptile, the adhesive creates a strong hold using microscopic flaps when they are in contact with a surface. This process is known as the Van der Waals force—weaker intermolecular force that results from subtle differences between the positions of electrons on the outsides of molecules.

“As a result, we’ve created adhesives that can adhere strongly but require little force to accomplish this task. In addition, they are not sticky to the touch or leave residue on surfaces where contact was made,” adds engineering student Dane Brouwer, another co-author on the project.

manner and strength

Underneath the patches, specialized pads help the robotic hand deal with the Van der Waals force applied to all fingers at many different angles at the same time. They are made of a collapsible rib-like structure that bends with minimal force.

With this ability, regardless of location or angle of contact, the ribs of the device bend more consistently, ensuring even distribution of all force across the pads and preventing either pad from slipping through the fingers during catch process.

Another advantage is that the multifunction tendons allow you to create a hyperextended pinching movement. Conventional robotic hands use the “C” shape to pick up objects with their fingertips, while FarmHand accomplishes this task with the help of pads, giving the patches a much larger contact surface.

“Thanks to advances in 3D printing, we were able to test various hard and soft plastic components in a relatively short period of time until we found the perfect materials. Five years ago we would not have achieved this feat, or at least it would have taken us much longer to achieve this result”, concludes Wilson Ruotolo.

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