Robotic Hand Could Be the Latest Game-Changer in Prosthetics

8/19/2014

By 2025, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will permeate wide segments of daily life, with huge implications for a range of industries such as health care, transport and logistics, customer service and home maintenance.

Those are the findings of a new report by Pew Research, which brought together almost 2,000 experts to comprehensively assess how advances in AI and robotics will impact the economic and employment picture over the next decade.

At Stevens Institute of Technology, students and faculty together improve robotics technology through advanced research. They investigate all aspects of robotics from sophisticated intelligence systems, novel robotic platforms and controls to component technologies for robotic systems.

This summer, Nathaniel Goldfarb, a sophomore mechanical engineering major from East Windsor, New Jersey, is leading a three-person team to apply the latest robotics technology to produce an improved 3D printed prosthetic hand through the Stevens Office of Innovation & Entrepreneurship's 10-week Summer Scholars Program.

Goldfarb, along with fellow Stevens students Guilherme Interlandi and Kevin Cariddi, are currently testing what Goldfarb describes as a “closed-loop control system of a 3D printed prosthetic hand using vision processing.”

Essentially, a robotics system guided by computer vision is attached to a prosthetic hand, enabling the hand to locate an object within an environment and carry out fine motor skills, making it possible for the user to perform operations like sorting objects or turning knobs.

“So the hand will be able to move an object to a certain location the user wants and be able to manipulate that object. Our hand is smart,” explains Goldfarb.

Along with robotics, Goldfarb is quick to point out the importance of 3D printing in revolutionizing the field of prosthetics. The technology of 3D printing – the building up of computer-generated renderings layer by layer – makes it possible to create almost anything, including customized prosthetics specialized for one person. This ability to produce them to order, rather than mass producing them and then sizing them, reduces costs dramatically, as compared to traditional prosthetics.

“We can create low-cost prosthetic hands for people who cannot afford the more expensive models,” says Goldfarb.

After months of assembly and programming, the project is now in the testing and calibration phase.

“We’re just proving out ideas to use vision processing to have the hand find an object to move to a location,” says Goldfarb. “Right now, we just have it on a laboratory testing platform. We have to figure out a way to actually put it on an arm that is attached to a person.”

Robotics technology is transforming the field of prosthetics. According to Goldfarb’s advisor, Department of Mechanical Engineering professor Dr. Mishah U. Salman, recent advances in the field of robotics have made the “once science-fiction notion of robotic prostheses into reality,” making it possible to create a new generation of prosthetic feet, legs, hands and arms that closely mimic the movements of natural limbs.

“Prosthetics are no longer pieces of wood, metal or plastic serving as stand-ins for limbs. With robotics technology, we're able to attach a prosthetic that would perform in the manner of a normal leg, arm or hand. They're essentially replacing the limbs with all the functionality,” Goldfarb explains.

Still, prosthetic hands have not advanced as far as other robotic limbs, which Goldfarb says have come close to the standard of biological limbs and, in some cases, surpassed them.

“Right now, the hand robotics systems are probably not performing up to the level of an actual hand. But for legs, it's absolutely performing better. Take, for example, the last Summer Olympics, there were double amputees running with everybody else.”

As the 2014 Summer Scholars Program comes to a close, Dr. Salman says Goldfarb will have played a role in promoting research that significantly improves the quality of life for many people worldwide.

“The research being performed by Nathaniel and his colleagues is paving the way for low-cost robotic prostheses which will make these great technologies more accessible to the general public,” he says.

But Goldfarb’s interest in merging robotics and prosthetics will continue well beyond the summer. He plans to take the research results and insight he gained as a Summer Scholar to other projects in the very near future.

“I plan on doing more in the field of robotic hands later on for my Senior Design Project. I'm not going to be using this exact hand or the exact way of controlling it. But the algorithms I developed I'm going to be taking with me.”

As for his post-graduation plans, Goldfarb says he’ll be seeking an employer who can help further his interest, as well as his graduate school education, in the field of robotics.

“I’m definitely going to be looking at the Department of Defense. They have the funding and the means to push the envelope of robotics to the limit. There is a great need for field robotics that are capable of performing tasks, either controlled by humans or autonomously where they can be put in the field and let go.”

As for predicting the impact of robotics technology on society, there is no doubt in Goldfarb’s mind that it is “the next big thing.”

“Robotics is starting to leak out where it's becoming more well-known, but it hasn't yet exploded. And I think in the next 10 years, robotics will be what computers were in the '70s.”