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New Robotic Hand Developed to Disarm IEDs

DARPA, Sandia National Labs develop a dextrous, durable, less costly robotic hand

With funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), investigators at Sandia National Laboratories have developed a new “robotic hand” that is both dexterous enough to mimic the capabilities of the human hand while also possessing characteristics of low cost, durability and modularity.

Developers characterize the new hand as a major step forward in the ability to remotely disarm improvised explosive devices.

According to Sandia senior manager Philip Heermann. “Current iterations of robotic hands can cost more than $250,000. We need the flexibility and capability of a robotic hand to save human lives, and it needs to be priced for wide distribution to troops.”

As a result, the Sandia project focused on the development of a robotic hand that would be both capable and affordable.

“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 principal investigator Curt Salisbury.

The new “Sandia Hand” has 12 degrees of freedom, and is estimated to retail for about $800 per degree of freedom – $10,000 total – in low-volume production. The design features a tough outer skin covering a gel-like layer to mimic human tissue and allow the hand to securely grab and manipulate objects. The operator controls the robotic hand with a glove that transfers the lifelike manipulation commands.

Sandia partnered with Stanford University to develop the hardware and the consulting firm LUNAR to reduce design costs.

Another attribute of the modular design allows the fingers to “fall off” if the operator accidentally runs the hand into a wall or another object. In fact, in that occurrence, the dexterous hand allows the robot to “pick up” the dropped digit with the remaining fingers and replace the finger in its socket.

That same modular capability also means that different types of “fingers” – including other tools, flashlights, screwdrivers or cameras – can be attached with magnets and quickly plugged into the hand frame.

In addition to the hardware effort, DARPA is also funding a separate software effort in a parallel track.

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Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...