The Department of Mechanical Engineering received about $440,000 from the National Science Foundation in August 2014 in order to research and develop a robotic hand. Dr. Joshua Schultz of the Mechanical Engineering Department is leading the research.
Rather than create a hand capable with opposable fingers, as has been the focus in other projects, such as the Vanderbilt hand, Dr. Schultz hopes to create a hand that copies the most useful hand gestures as a more cost-effective alternative to such hands.
Dr. Schultz’s design involves two motors for the thumb and then a few more motors for the rest of the hand. “By adding those (motors) up,” he says, “you can produce the most common hand poses while keeping the hand very simple, keeping the number of motors to a minimum, keeping (the hand) low maintenance and reliable.”
A lot of the work has been mathematical and analytical, attempting to solve some of the central questions of the grant: How does the web of tendons and muscles in the hand interact to create actions, and how do we synthesize those actions?
Springs “will keep the motors from fighting one another, and instead have the motors add to one another,” said Schultz. This will aid the hand in allocating force properly.
Robotic hands have many applications. The National Institute of Health could implement the hand in prosthetics, as a cheaper and more stable alternative to a fully actuated finger individuated hand. The hand could also have applications in space, such as performing spaceship maintenance without risking astronauts, holding on to tools that fly around, or shaking hands with aliens.
Most significantly, as Dr. Schultz said, “The goal for robotics is always to reduce the more mundane tasks that humans have to do,” such as folding towels or doing the dishes.
Dr. Schultz hopes to start building the hand this summer. The hand is set to be functioning by next summer, at which time analysis and testing will begin.
The project was funded through the National Robotics Initiative, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, NASA and the National Institute of Health.