A team at Sandia National Laboratories have developed a lifelike robotic hand which can disarm explosives.
Dubbed the Sandia Hand project and funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), researcher Curt Salisbury was part of a team that aimed to develop an affordable robotic hand which could accurately mimic the human variation — in order to take on dangerous tasks such as disarming improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Due to the high levels of dexterity and flexibility required to replicate a hand, especially at a low cost, the prototype may come as a surprise to those in the robotics industry. However, the Sandia Hand could prove invaluable to troops, as it could allow the remote disarming of dangerous explosives.
“Current iterations of robotic hands can cost more than $250,000. We need the flexibility and capability of a robotic hand to save human lives, and it needs to be priced for wide distribution to troops,” said Sandia senior manager Philip Heermann.
Using a module-based design, different fingers can be attached to magnets and plugged into the hand’s frame. Additional tools, including screwdrivers and cameras, can also be attached to each finger port to increase functionality.
If the hand clashes against a hard surface — for example, a wall — then the fingers drop off.
Principal investigator Curt Salisbury said:
“Hands are considered the most difficult part of the robotic system, and are also the least available due to the need for high dexterity at a low cost [...] rather than breaking the hand, this configuration allows the user to recover very quickly, and fingers can easily be put back in their sockets. In addition, if a finger pops off, the robot can actually pick it up with the remaining fingers, move into position and resocket the finger by itself.”
The robot hand is controlled through a glove. A gel layer coats the robotic device, mimicking human flesh and providing traction to grasp objects.
Each Sandia Hand has 12 degrees of freedom — individual parameters which all contribute to the high-cost of these kinds of robotics. However, Sandia partnered with researchers at Stanford University to develop the hardware, and worked with consulting firm LUNAR to lower expenses — with the potential of high level production in the future to drive down the cost further.
Each single degree of freedom fetches $10,000 in the current market. However, the team have focused on making the technology affordable. ”The Sandia Hand has 12 degrees of freedom, and is estimated to retail for about $800 per degree of freedom — $10,000 total — in low-volume production.” said Salisbury. “This 90 percent cost reduction is really a breakthrough.”
The team hopes that the device, apart from disabling IEDs, could also be used to help investigators. Bombs are often disarmed simply by blowing them up — but if the Sandia Hand could render a bomb safe without destroying this evidence, then it may lead to fewer IEDs being deployed and more arrests.
Image credit: Randy Montoya