A Sandia National Laboratories research team has [designed] a modular, plastic proto-hand whose electronics system is largely made from parts found in cell phones.
The Sandia Hand can still perform with a high level of finesse for a robot, and is even capable of replacing the batteries in a small flashlight. It is expected to cost about $10,000, a fraction of the $250,000 price tag for a state-of-the-art robot hand today.
The researchers were able to scrimp in a number of clever ways. “One was scouring the globe for the least expensive, highest-performing components like motors, gears, etcetera,” says Curt Salisbury, the project’s principal investigator. “Another was to build the entire electronics system from commodity parts, especially those found in cell phones. We also moved from metal structural elements to plastic, being careful to design the structures so plastic would provide adequate strength.”
The Sandia Hand’s fingers are modular and affixed to the hand frame via magnets. This gives the researchers the flexibility to design interchangeable appendages tipped with screwdrivers, flashlights, cameras and other tools.
The fingers are also designed to detach automatically to avoid damage if the hand hits a wall or other solid object too hard. The researchers say the hand can even be manipulated to retrieve and reattach a fallen finger.
The Hand’s current incarnation has only four fingers, including the equivalent of an opposable thumb. “It turns out that for a wide range of manipulation tasks that humans do, four fingers is enough,” Salisbury says. Still, future iterations of the Hand could have any number of fingers and any arrangement of those fingers without adding much cost or complexity, he adds.