Powered Roboglove moves from space to auto plants

Posted by Kate Taylor

General Motors and NASA have teamed up to create a powered robotic glove for use in space - and on the auto factory floor.

The Human Grasp Assist device - aka the Robo-Glove - derives from the Robonaut 2 project. This saw the first humanoid robot launched into space in 2011, complete with sensors, actuators and tendons comparable to the nerves, muscles and tendons in a human hand.

But the team realized that the robotic hand had uses on Earth too.

"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," says manufacturing engineering director Dana Komin.

"In so doing, it is expected to reduce the risk of repetitive stress injury."

For example, says Komin, an astronaut working in a pressurized suit outside the space station or an assembly operator in a factory might need to use 15 to 20 pounds of force to hold a tool during an operation - but just five to ten with the robotic glove.

Actuators are embedded into the upper portion of the Roboglove to give grasping support to human fingers.  Pressure sensors detect when the user is grasping a tool, following which the synthetic tendons automatically retract, pulling the fingers into a gripping position and holding them there until the sensor is released.

The current prototypes weigh about two pounds and include the control electronics, actuators and a small display for programming and diagnostics. An off-the-shelf lithium-ion power-tool battery with a belt-clip is used to power the system.

A third-generation prototype that will use repackaged components to reduce the size and weight of the system is nearly complete.

"We are continuously looking for ways to improve safety and productivity on the shop floor," says Komin. "Our goal is to bring this technology to the shop floor in the near future."