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Modular robotic hand can disarm IEDs for less

Sandia hand

Sandia National Labs and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have developed a robotic hand that they say can be used to disarm improvised explosive devices (IEDs), without breaking the banks of potential users.

Sandia said on Aug. 15 that its Sandia Hand addresses challenges that have prevented widespread adoption of other robotic hands, such as cost, durability, dexterity and modularity.  The modular design can cost around $10,000 or less, depending on the required degree of capability, according to the lab.

“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,” said Sandia senior manager Philip Heermann.

DARPA funds the hand’s hardware development, as well as a separate software effort to help run it in a parallel track.

Principal investigator Curt Salisbury said the goal was to build a capable but affordable robotic system, said in a Sandia Labs statement.

“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,” Salisbury said.

The lab said the Sandia Hand is modular, allowing different types of fingers to be attached with magnets and quickly plugged into the hand frame. The operator can quickly and easily attach additional fingers or other tools, such as flashlights, screwdrivers or cameras, it said. The fingers are designed to fall off should the operator accidentally run the hand into a wall or another object, it said, increasing its durability.

“Rather than breaking the hand, this configuration allows the user to recover very quickly, and fingers can easily be put back in their sockets,” Salisbury said. “In addition, if a finger pops off, the robot can actually pick it up with the remaining fingers, move into position and resocket the finger by itself.”

The operator controls the robot with a glove, and the lifelike design allows even first-time users to manipulate the robot easily, according to Sandia. The robot’s outer skin covers a gel-like layer that mimics human tissue, giving the hand the capability of securely grabbing and manipulating objects, like a human hand.

Sandia claims its robotic hand can disable IEDs, giving investigators more evidence in the search for the bomb makers themselves. Bombs are sometimes disarmed by blowing them up, while effective at neutralizing the bomb, it also destroys evidence and presents a challenge to investigators trying to catch the bomb maker. A robotic hand that can handle the delicate disarming operation while preserving the evidence could lead to more arrests, and fewer bombs, said Sandia.

The Sandia Hand addresses challenges that have prevented widespread adoption of other robotic hands, including cost, durability, dexterity and modularity.

Sandia partnered with researchers at Stanford University to develop the hardware and worked with consulting firm LUNAR to drive costs down drastically. In current commercially available robotic hands, each independently actuated degree of freedom costs roughly $10,000.

“The 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. This 90 percent cost reduction is really a breakthrough,” said Salisbury. Additionally, because much of the technology is in the individual finger modules, hands with custom numbers and arrangements of fingers will be quite affordable, said the lab.

“At this price point, the Sandia Hand has the potential to be a disruptive technology,” added Heermann. “Computers, calculators and cell phones became part of daily life and drastically changed how we do things when the price became affordable. This hand has the same potential, especially given that high-volume production can further reduce the cost.”

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