Strokes or spinal cord injuries can badly damage the communication channels between the nervous system and muscles. This often leaves victims unable to use their arms or legs. Thankfully a team of roboticists from Harvard, with support from the National Science Foundation, have developed an inflatable, robotic glove to give patients of this nature control of their arms back.

Lead designer, Conor Walsh, and his colleagues are perfecting an exoskeleton-like gauntlet designed for temporary upper-body rehabilitation or long-term function assistance. Unlike rigid prosthetics, the glove is made up of layered, stretchy textiles covering a less-malleable balloon sack in the shape of a hand. The goal is to ensure that prolonged use doesn’t strain users.

“Our approach to doing that is creating very lightweight and soft wearable robots that people could wear all day every day,” explains Walsh in the video seen above.

The design of mechanical limbs and components that can bend, stretch and wiggle, like skin, is known as soft robotics. These giggly machines can not only be used to replicate the structure of organic life, but they can be used to augment human capability because they can warp to fit people like a glove.

soft robots
Tim Gatautis, who suffered a spinal cord injury from a swimming accident, using the soft robotic glove to lift a tool.

To give it form and make it sturdy, Walsh’s device is pumped with air, and the palm is outfitted with sensors that regulate the glove’s grip. Users can tap once to release their grip, tap again to make a fist, or maintain contact with an object to signal it to close.

Dr. Sabrina Paganoni, an unaffiliated researcher who works with people who have Lou Gehrig’s disease at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital says devices like this could be a game changer. There’s currently no cure for the nervous system disorder that weakens muscles and impedes physical function. Walsh’s glove, she says, could restore a sense of hope for these kinds of patients who don’t presently have a lot of options.

“The need for assistive devices is going to continue to increase. Because people will live longer as we develop new treatments. But at the same time we need to be able to give them not just longer lives, but more fulfilling more productive lives,” explained Paganoni in the video.

Looking further in the future, once Walsh and his team have found various designs of the glove that could work across the board for a variety of rehab patients the device could transcend its original purpose. Factory workers in Ford factories, for examples, use rigid and immobile exosuits to keep their arms up without straining their shoulders or backs. A glove like this could help hold heavy tools or help other workers reduce their chances of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.

In short, it’s yet another perfect example of how focusing on users with an ability difference can bring about innovation that benefits society as a whole in a variety of unexpected ways.

Photos via National Science Foundation, National Science Foundation