Soft Robotics Learned to Mimic Limb Function, Changing Lives for Amputees

Soft robotics systems are supposed to strike the perfect balance between rigid and squishy, making the subfield ideal for mimicking the biomechanics of the human body. This subcategory of robotics has revolutionized how prosthetics can help people who have suffered injuries that resulted in nervous system or muscle damage. Earlier this year, a team of roboticists at Harvard developed a balloon-like glove that has successfully gave paralysis patients control of their arms back.

Conor Walsh and his colleagues constructed a hand exoskeleton for temporary upper-body rehabilitation or long-term function assistance. The team layered stretchy textiles over an inflatable sack in the shape of a hand. Subjects can slip it on and then use it to help grip objects and move them around.

“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.

This is #5 on Inverse’s list of the 20 Ways A.I. Became More Human in 2018.

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

So how does it work, exactly? Air is pumped into the gauntlet to make it sturdy, while a sensor embedded in the palm regulates grip strength. Users can tap once to open the glove, tap again to close it, or simply maintain contact with an object to keep the fist closed.

Walsh and his team are looking into different designs to help as many rehabilitation patients as possible. This kind of technology could even be repurposed to help support factory workers’ arms or legs. Certain Ford employees already make use of rigid exosuits, a soft robotics glove can serve as a lighter, more comfortable alternative.

More than just a simple soft robot, this Walsh’s invention serves as proof that inclusive design sparks innovation that can benefit society as a whole.

Media via National Science Foundation, soft robot arms