Designing a robotic hand that can both pick up and manipulate small objects, like pens or coins, and powerfully grasp larger objects, such as hammers and cups, is no easy task. But that’s exactly what Aaron Dollar, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at the Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science, is striving to do.
Now his creative approach has earned him a place on the list of the 2010 Young Innovators Under 35 by Technology Review.
Each year, the magazine selects 35 young leaders whose work is “transforming technology” and shaping the future. Winners are chosen from around the world and across a range of disciplines, including biomedicine, energy, materials, communications, transportation, computer technology and the Internet. Past recipients include Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg, PayPal cofounder Max Levchin, and Linux developer Linus Torvalds.
For Dollar, designing and building a mechanical hand that can accomplish a multitude of tasks—those requiring both "precision manipulation" as well as "power grasping"—has potential applications in domestic robotic assistance as well as prosthetics, designs for which Dollar points out haven’t changed much in the past 60 years. The goal is to make simple, easy-to-use devices that mimic the human hand.
"Most research efforts these days are about pushing robotics to be able to deal with the sorts of unstructured environments that humans tend to find themselves in," he says.
To ensure the hands can handle such environments and deal with unfamiliar objects, Dollar makes them out of soft plastic materials that give them both dexterity and strength; he mills wax molds for each digit, which contain sensors and cables that are hooked up to a base. Using plastics makes the hands pliable and able to wrap around objects, and also makes the hands less expensive than traditional metal robotic components, he notes.
To view the full announcement and watch a video showing how Dollar makes the flexible robotic hands, visit the TR35 website.
Technology Review is published by Technology Review Inc., an independent media company owned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The oldest technology magazine in the world (est. 1899), it aims to promote the understanding of emerging technologies and to analyze their commercial, social, and political impacts.