A soft robotic hand that’s far closer in function, and feel, to the human hand was unveiled at the University of Wollongong’s Innovation campus on Thursday.
The prototype responds to signals from the brain like a regular hand via an interface placed on arm muscles, and is both lightweight and low cost.
Lead researcher Professor Gursel Alici said the prototype took advantage of advances in smart materials and 3D printing at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES).
‘’Users of prosthetic hands only use them for about a third of the tasks they could – because they are hard and heavy, and not as intuitive as they’d like,’’ Prof Alici said.
‘’By using the smart materials developed at ACES, we have created a soft robotic hand that can be strong and carry heavy objects, but is lightweight and soft to touch.
‘’Current robotic prosthetics also have a number of joins, whereas 3D printing allows us to make one continuous structure which improves functionality and control.’’
Prof Alici said the latest prototype – which could be publicly available within two years – was one step closer to a regular hand.
‘’The hand is one of the most important parts of our body – it’s the most significant interface between a person and their environment,’’ he said. ‘’We have used the progress in smart, functional materials to create a robotic hand that has a better interface and interaction with the environment – and allows the user to make more lifelike movements.’’
The prototype is low-power, and will have an extended lifespan compared to current prosthetics. ‘’We have made it more durable, more robust and longer lasting than prosthetic hands now available,’’ Prof Alici said.
The team will now refine the prototype by replacing the motors with artificial muscles, and improving the interface that translates brain signals into movement.
‘’We will be making it even more user-friendly by creating a minimally invasive interface from the brain to the nerves, from the nerves to the muscles, from the muscles to the hand and fingers,’’ he said.
‘’So options like an implantable interface, or soft printable material on the arm instead of wires and electrodes.’’
They will also further explore smart materials to help users not only grasp objects, but provide feedback on their size, shape and temperature.
Prof Alici demonstrated the prototype, along with ACES Research Fellow Dr Rahim Mutlu, at an international electromaterials symposiusm at the Innovation Campus.
ACES executive research director Professor Gordon Wallace said it was a great example of the practical applications of smart materials.
‘’We have developed a suite of materials that can be used for externally worn prosthetics as well as internal prosthetics, such as better bionic ears and cartilage and corneal regeneration,’’ Prof Wallace said.