Engineering Flexible Robotic Hands

Picking up and holding small objects tightly are simple and mindless tasks that people have been doing since toddlerhood. Devising a mechanical hand that can perform those tasks, on the other hand, has been the dream of many automation designers for years, and a dream that Aaron Dollar, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at the Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science, is getting closer to achieving.

Dollar, who received his bachelor’s degree at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and his doctorate at Harvard University, has excelled as a young and innovative scientist, leading him to receive many awards and honors, including the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award. To top off that list of honors, the magazine Technology Review has recently named Dollar as one of “35 Young Innovators under 35.”

Established in 1899, making it the oldest technology magazine in the world, Technology Review encourages the know-how of new technologies and analyzes their commercial, social, and political effects. Each year, the magazine chooses 35 young leaders from around the world who are changing the technological landscape and future in the fields of biomedicine, energy, transportation, and new media. Some of the more notable recipients who have received this prestigious title in the past include Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, and PayPal co-founder Max Levchin. Now joining this list of technology tycoons is Aaron Dollar for the creation of flexible robotic hands.

To ensure that these mechanical hands can delicately handle and maneuver any kind of object that they encounter for the first time, Dollar pursued a high degree of robotic flexibility in the design. He fashioned the hands out of soft plastics, which confer both dexterity and strength, and allow the robotic fingers to form a secure grip on the objects. Furthermore, plastics are cheaper and require less processing power than metals.

Dollar’s mechanical design, however, comes with an innovative twist: soft plastic, a material that is not traditionally employed in robotics, is very difficult to use in order to make small, functional parts. Dollar nevertheless was able to circumvent this problem by creating wax molds for every finger. By doing so, he could pour different plastics with varying degrees of durability in order to accurately build all the parts of the human hand, such as the joints, fingers, and finger plates. After several rounds of optimization and adaptation of this robotic construction, Dollar was able to successfully create a hand that could very closely mimic a human one.

Because of their potential to perform a wide range of various tasks, these robotic hands present promising, practical applications, including but not limited to robotic domestic assistance, artificial body parts for rehabilitation and assistive devices, underactuated mechanisms, and biomechanics of human movement. Having skillfully constructed a mechanical hand that very closely replicates a human one, Dollar continues to work towards employing sophisticated technology in hopes of creating simple, intuitive conveniences.