The new Human Grasp Assist device, or Robo-Glove (bottom) multiplies the strength of a human’s grasp and is derived from technology developed for Robonaut (top). (Credit: NASA)
Last year Robonaut became the first humanoid robot in space and now, less than a year later, the developers are finding uses for its advanced technologies here on Earth, the first of which is the Human Grasp Assist device--affectionately called the Robo-Glove--which multiplies the strength of its human wearer.
NASA developed the Robonaut to lend a helping hand to astronauts by taking over tedious and dangerous tasks on the International Space Station (ISS). General Motors (GM) was brought into the project, along with Oceaneering Space Systems, to help find ways to capitalize on Robonaut with ground-based technologies based on its achievements. Since Robonaut, currently in its second generation, was designed to use human tools, the task of finding ground-based uses was simplified. Robo-Glove is the first ground-based application of a Robonaut technology which GM hopes will aid human automobile assembly workers to perform their jobs more easily, as well as reduce the risk of repetitive-stress injuries.
Robonaut's hands were designed with a supersensitive skin manufactured by Oceaneering Space Systems using a quantum tunneling composite (QTC) invented at Peratech Ltd. QTC changes its resistance in response to pressure. By using it to fabricate the fingers of Robo-Glove, an accurate control signal can be sent to the synthetic tendons in the glove, to multiply the pressure applied by the fingers. As a result, the fatigue that typically afflicts a human worker after only a few minutes of tight gripping is mitigated. In practice, as little as five pound pressure by a human is multiplied to as much as 20 pounds pressure when wearing Robo-Glove.
The team has been perfecting the Robo-Glove design since it was first prototyped last year. The current second generation prototype weighs about two pounds including the control electronics, tendon actuators, and a small display for programming and diagnostics. An off-the-shelf lithium-ion battery pack, repurposed from a power tool, is currently attached to a belt-clip to power Robo-Glove. However, the third generation prototype, due out later this year, will repackage the components into a smaller, lighter, self-contained system.
NASA and GM have 46 patents pending for Robonaut, including 21 for its hand and four for the Robo-Glove alone.
The Robo-Glove is just the first many spinoffs to be derived from Robonaut for ground-based applications. The team is likewise developing a complete robotic arm to be used on NASA's upcoming multi-mission Space Exploration Vehicle. Much of this technology could be used on the ground for automobile assembly.