This week it turns out to be robotic fingers. Two of them. Long, black-and-orange, and stick-like-looking. One on each side of a special sensory glove that goes over a human hand.
Don’t let the relative visual inelegance dissuade you. By harnessing “synergy,” or the ability of muscles to work together smoothly as a unit, the bright bulbs at the lab have come up with a system that permits a variety of useful tasks essentially one-handed. As they demonstrate, these include such everyday annoyances as needing to take a tight-fitting cap off a liter-size pop bottle or opening an envelope without getting a paper cut.
As they demonstrate, the two extra robotics fingers hold the item steady while the gloved human hand carries out the more fine-motor skill.
It’s all being done by Dr. H. Harry Asada who is Ford Professor of Engineering, Director, d'Arbeloff Laboratory for Information Systems and Technology and Head, Control, Instrumentation, and Robotics
He and his graduate students point out in their short video that a device of this sort would be a boon for the disabled, the elderly (or even those of us prone to tendonitis).
As Evan Ackerman points out in the IEEE Spectrum, “The servos driving the fingers are powerful enough to exert a force similar to your own fingers, meaning that they can do more than stabilize objects: they can actually help you hold and lift.”
He also observes, “What the robotic fingers are currently lacking is any kind of tactile sensing, or any force feedback, which are both key to the operation of the fingers you currently have. The next generation of the system will likely include these capabilities, and it's interesting to think about what other capabilities might be available.”