Researchers are showing off a robotic hand that they say could be dexterous enough to disarm an improvised explosive device (IED) and cost-effective enough to be used widely by troops.
"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," said lead researcher Curt Salisbury of Sandia National Laboratories.
The device, named the Sandia Hand, is modular so that different kinds of fingers, as well as tools like flashlights, screwdrivers or cameras, can be quickly plugged into the hand frame with magnets. The researchers say modularity allows the fingers to fall off, instead of breaking, if the operator — who controls the robot with a glove — accidentally slams the hand into a wall or another object.
"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," Salisbury explained in a statement from Sandia.
The researchers also outfitted the hand with lifelike features, including a gel-like layer to mimic human tissue underneath the hand's tough outer skin, which helps the robot securely grab and manipulate objects. Such features might allow soldiers to use robot to delicately disable an IED without blowing it up.
For now, the retail cost of a Sandia Hand is estimated at about $10,000. While that sounds like a lot, the researchers point out that current robotic hands can cost more than $250,000.