Robotic Glove Helps Users Regain Control of Their Hands

RoboticGlove

Simple tasks such as buttoning a shirt or using a fork and knife can turn into obstacles for patients with spinal cord injuries and diseases such as muscular dystrophy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). A new robotic glove developed by engineers could change that.

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The glove was developed by researchers at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) in collaboration with the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. The team’s goal was to create a soft, wearable robotic system that features social and psychological design elements.

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“From the start of this project, we’ve focused on understanding the real-world challenges facing these patients by visiting them in their homes to perform research,” said Conor Walsh, a Harvard assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering.

Using Kevlar fibers 

Walsh and his team have been working on the mechanics of the glove to make it feel more natural to users. The multi-segment actuators are made from Kevlar fibers and silicone elastomer. They’ve been made smaller and are designed to evenly distribute force between the fingers and thumb. The glove’s lightweight control system is fully portable; it can be attached to a wheelchair or worn using a belt.

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“Ultimately, patients have to be comfortable with wearing the glove,” said Kevin Galloway, a mechanical engineer with Wyss. “In addition to glove function, we found that people cared about its appearance, which could have a big impact on whether or not the glove would be a welcome part of their daily routine.”

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The researchers are currently working on improving the robotic glove’s control strategies. They plan to use tiny sensors (which will be worn in the form of a cuff) to increase surface electromyography. Electromyography sensors can spot residual muscle signals, which will help the device detect the wearer’s intent.

Customizing the gloves 

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“We are continuing to test the design of the soft robotic glove on patients, in relation to making it customizable for the specific pathologies of each individual and understanding what control strategies work best — but we’re already seeing a lot of exciting proof-of-concept experimental results,” added Walsh. “The current goal is to refine the overall system sufficiently so we can begin a feasibility trial with multiple patients later this year.”

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The glove’s design was recently published in the journal Robotics and Autonomous Systems. In addition, the team will present its findings this August at the International Conference on Robotics Research in Singapore.