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Why this robotic arm catching and crushing a can of beer is a big deal

Achieving both force and speed in robotic hands has long been one of the greatest challenges of science. But researchers from Cornell University have come up with a revolutionary solution.

Our biological hands can be both strong and fast. We can, like we all demonstrated a million times in our heyday, catch a can of beer in mid-air and crush it.

Until now, artificial limbs could typically have only one of those traits at a time. They could be either fast or strong, but not both.

To complicate matters further, in order to achieve a degree of accuracy, speed and force comparable to a human hand, prosthetic appendages rely on very expensive, high-quality motors that still fall short of the real thing.

In a paper published in the academic journal Science Robotics, a group of engineers from Cornell University has presented a fairly simple and cost-effective solution that brings robotic hands one step closer to biological ones.

Now, thanks to a lightweight, 3D-printed “transmission”, researchers have been able to create a robotic hand that can be both strong and fast at the same time.

The innovative transmission they devised is comprised of a trigger mechanism receptive to tension, and a cylinder made of polyurethane composite.

When tension is exerted on the trigger mechanism, the cylinder autonomously adjusts its radius based on the amount of tension applied. It’s like magic, but better: it’s physics.

The team integrated six of these into a 3D-printed soft prosthetic hand with six active degrees of freedom. The new transmissions allowed the prosthetic hand to increase its grip force about three times without compromising flexion speed.

We’re still far from a creating a robot hand as complex as a biological one, but the cost decrease that this advancement entails could speed up considerably the goal.

“We’re getting closer, but it’s still going to take a long time and a lot more innovations to get us there,” Kevin W. O’Brien, one of the paper’s authors, told Motherboard.

About the author

Filmmaker. 3D artist. Procrastination guru. I spend most of my time doing VFX work for my upcoming film Servicios Públicos, a sci-fi dystopia about robots, overpopulated cities and tyrant states. @iampineros

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