University of Coimbra researchers have developed a cost-effective soft robotic hand, potentially promoting advances in AI and humanoid robots.
Soft-material robots frequently excel in mimicking the looks, motions, and capabilities of humans and animals more accurately. Despite the proliferation of these soft robots, mass production remains a challenge because of the expensive nature of their components and the intricacies involved in their manufacturing process.
Researchers at the University of Coimbra in Portugal have developed a new soft robotic hand that promises to be more cost-effective and simpler to manufacture. Most robots are built with hard materials, yet many animals combine hard and soft bodily elements. Taking cues from nature, the researchers anticipate that future robots will increasingly feature soft material components, possibly evolving into entirely soft-bodied designs.
The team’s primary goal was to create a soft robotic hand that is both secure and economical. Theoretically, this would facilitate easier large-scale deployment, potentially sparking further innovation and research in robotics. The team used finite element analysis to hone the hand’s design before production, cutting prototype costs. Regular 3D printing was effective, facilitating the direct creation of components in soft materials and molds in rigid materials. The resulting soft robotic hand, comprising various materials, closely mirrors the appearance and functionality of human hands, replicating their movements and skills with a carefully devised structure.
A Handy Step Forward
The robotic hand features a setup of five soft actuators, each representing a finger, and incorporates an exoskeleton that enhances the bendability of the fingers. A simple ON-OFF controller regulates the designated finger bending angles, allowing the hand to securely grasp objects with different shapes, weights, and sizes. The team has tested their robotic hand’s efficacy through various simulations and experiments, yielding promising initial results in handling diverse objects. According to the researchers, a significant breakthrough is the unified design-fabrication system that uses finite element analysis for optimization before fabrication, potentially making soft robotic hands more accessible and affordable by bypassing the usual resource-heavy iterative workflows.
In the future, the soft robotic hand could enable academic groups and individual roboticists to explore new AI algorithms and computational tools, fostering advancements in robotic capabilities. Moreover, its economical design could pave the way for affordable humanoid robots assisting with daily human activities.
Reference: Samuel Alves et al, Integrated Design Fabrication and Control of a Bioinspired Multimaterial Soft Robotic Hand, Cyborg and Bionic Systems (2023). DOI: 10.34133/cbsystems.0051