With two robotic fingers, humans get a helping hand

Mechanical fingers grasp like the real thing

FAKE FINGERS  Two robotic digits mounted to the wrist make human hands more versatile: Wearing the contraption lets users perform some two-handed feats singlehandedly, such as holding a bottle while unscrewing the lid. 

F.Y. Wu and H.H. Asada

Robo-fingers could help humans get a grip. A new type of wearable robot pairs two tonglike digits with a wrist brace to give a person the dexterity of a seven-fingered hand.

After slipping on the contraption, users can palm a basketball, single-handedly twist off a bottle cap or hold a tablet computer and type on it using the same hand, MIT mechanical engineers Faye Wu and Harry Asada reported July 15 at the Robotics: Science and Systems conference in Berkeley, Calif.

Wu and Asada’s robotic digits, thick tubes that jut from the wrist, use a computer program to coordinate movements with the wearer’s hand motions.

To teach the program where to direct the digits, Wu held different objects while wearing a prototype with glove-mounted fiber-optic sensors, and then she moved the robo-fingers into place. The sensors recorded the position of her real fingers so that the researchers could automatically match the robot’s movements with hers.

The grasp-enhancing gadget could one day help healthy or disabled users lift large or heavy objects, or hold extremely hot or cold items.

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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