March 13, 2012 at 6:24 PM ET
The folks who brought you Robonaut have teamed up to create a robotic glove that can help factory workers and astronauts get a grip more easily for a longer time.
NASA and GM today unveiled the Human Grasp Assist device, also known as the K-Glove or Robo-Glove. The contraption is a spin-off of their Robonaut 2 project, which put a two-armed android torso with a camera-equipped head on the International Space Station last year.
The space agency and the automaker both say they're trying to turn the glove into a stress-saver. "When fully developed, the Robo-Glove has the potential to reduce the amount of force that an auto worker would need to exert when operating a tool for an extended time or with repetitive motions," Dana Komin, GM's manufacturing engineering director for global automation strategy and execution, said in a news release. "In so doing, it is expected to reduce the risk of repetitive stress injury."
Actuators are built into the fingers of the glove to provide grasping support for human fingers, under the control of touch sensors incorporated into the fingertips. When the glove's wearer grabs a tool, synthetic tendons automatically retract, pulling the fingers into a gripping position and holding them there until the sensor is released.
The technology could make things easier for astronauts, who have to grip tools with bulky spacesuit gloves over and over during hours-long spacewalks. GM says an astronaut typically needs 15 to 20 pounds of gripping force to hold onto a tool, but the robo-glove could reduce that to 5 to 10 pounds of force. Trish Petete, division chief for the Crew and Thermal Systems Division at NASA's Johnson Space Center, said the technology "challenges our traditional thinking of what extravehicular activity hand dexterity could be."
The first prototype of the glove was built a year ago, and since then the design has gone through a round of tweaks. The current prototype weighs about 2 pounds (1 kilogram), which takes in the control electronics, the actuators and a small display for programming and diagnostics. The actuators are driven by an off-the-shelf lithium-ion power-tool battery that's worn on the belt.
Marty Linn, GM's principal engineer of robotics, told me that the company hasn't set a timetable for putting the robo-glove to work in a real-world environment. "As a matter of fact, we have not yet started the trials," he said.
He also acknowledged that the prototype device is a little too heavy for regular use on the factory floor. "We want to make it lighter and use less power," he said.
But once the technology is perfected, GM would like to license it for a variety of commercial applications here on Earth. The Robo-Glove could come in handy for construction workers who need to operate power tools for hours at a time, patients who need to rehabilitate cramped-up hands, firefighters who need to hang onto a fire hose ... and, of course, billionaires seeking superhero powers.
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