Development in haptic technology and neural interfaces for people suffering from paralysis or loss of a limb has improved significantly in the last decade. Research in robotics, neurology, computer software and hardware is resulting in applicable technology that is making the lives of these patients better. Although the exact application of some of the research is not visible when it is being conceived, the evolution of the project leads researchers to many applications in different fields of healthcare, computing, manufacturing, space exploration and education.
The development of soft robotic structures from Whitesides Research Group (WRG) uses materials and methodology to fabricate robots with organic chemistry, soft materials science, and robotics. The use of embedded pneumatic networks (EPNs) allows individual units to perform actions with pressurizing embedded channels. What this means is it uses air which is coordinated and directed to the channels to grab or release an object or move.
The soft elastomers are designed to resemble animals such as squid, elephant trunks and lizard tongues; they have what is called a muscular hydrostat structure. The movement of squids for example relies on an arrangement of muscles which bend, stretch and contract without an increase in the size of the animal.
The WRG design uses the elastomers and the channels within them to inflate like balloons so it can move. A series of parallel chambers are embedded in the elastomers. When the chambers are filled with air in the succession it is possible to create motion just like the motion of a caterpillar. By adding more chambers and placing them in different base structures it is possible to create new and innovative movements.
The movement can be designed and configured to various sizes with a structure that can change shapes from convex to concave to grip objects. The prototype was able to grip an uncooked chicken egg and a live mouse without causing any damage because all of the components are made from a soft material, including the channels.
Robotic systems are generally made from hard materials with components not well suited for adaptation with the human body. Even though haptic technology is making it possible to increase the feeling of interaction with prosthetics hard metals and plastics still don’t blend well with the body.
The goal in the future is to adapt not one set of technology, but to use whatever is available so an amputee will be able to pick up an egg with a soft robotic finger with a brain to limb neural interface without having to feel a piece of hardware is attached to the body.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman