Enhancing the capabilities of soft robotic hands

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Engineering Science

Abstract

This project is seeking to improve the manufacturing capability and operability for soft robotic hands. These improvements are to be achieved in two main ways: by progressing various 3D printing technologies in order to design entire limbs that can be produced without human interference; by improving the actuation technology for soft robotics to imitate the number of muscles within the human hand without congesting the hand itself. The limbs will begin as sets of pneumatically actuated finger digits with corresponding supporting soft materials and will eventually incorporate sensors for feedback into electronic control systems.
3D printing is currently used extensively for 'hard' applications such as forming strong plastic structures that were previously too difficult to fabricate with traditional means. It is gradually being introduced to the 'soft' market with more compliant materials being designed for use in 3D printers. These soft materials have been shown to be akin to some biological tissues and therefore can be further developed to emulate the feeling and touch of skin. Furthermore, within the same printing cycle, hard materials can be incorporated, which are similar to bone. One of the drives behind this project is then to combine these hard and soft materials, but also to add conductive tracks through the plastics to allow for sensors and control units to be used.
The current market has many versions of robotic hands, but very few have the degrees of freedom (DOFs) that a human hand has. For example, there is not a case where a soft robot hand has a fully opposable thumb. This project seeks to increase the degrees of controllable freedom that can be achieved by a soft robotic hand in order to improve the mimicry of a human hand. The drive for this comes from wanting to copy the dexterity that human hands have, which provides us with an incredible amount of control over widely differently shaped objects. A robot hand with that amount of dexterity will be able to have much better interactions with its surroundings (object manipulation and tactile sensing).
In future, these hands will be able to be combined with existing humanoid robots or even prosthetics and will provide a more human-like experience, with improved capacity for interacting with surrounding objects. Furthermore, with the use of 3D printing as a primary manufacturing technique, the product should be more easily reproducible, increasing the accessibility of the technology.
The novelty of the research stems from the combination of bioinspiration and modern manufacturing capabilities. There is not currently a robot that uses soft robotics alongside printed electronics or one that has the same number of DOFs as a human hand. This is where the project aims to set itself apart.
With regards to the EPSRC strategies, this project falls within the EPSRC Robotics research area. It can be seen to align with:
- P1: Introduce the next generation of innovative and disruptive technologies o The humanoid hands will hopefully be able to be modified to be used in prosthetics, providing healthcare benefits to amputees o The advance in 3D printing can be seen to be an improvement in manufacturing systems
- P4: Drive business innovation through digital transformation o The lack of reliance on human interference with the manufacturing process indicates that there is an improvement in autonomy
- H4: Develop future therapeutic technologies o The hand can be modified to provide therapeutic and rehabilitative treatment (consider the hand being used as a feedback mechanism for increasing the strength of a patient who has suffered from a stroke)
- H5 Advance non-medicinal interventions o As above, but also a robot companion with good tactile sensing and a soft touch will be more willingly interacted with than what is previously on the market

Publications

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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/N509711/1 01/10/2016 30/09/2021
2280791 Studentship EP/N509711/1 01/10/2019 31/03/2023 Oliver Michael Shorthose