New soft robotic hand is dexterous enough to beat a video game

Robotics researchers from the University of Maryland have created a 3D printed soft robotic hand. One of the biggest problems with robotic hands so far is that they lack the dexterity required to perform some tasks. The researchers have created a soft robotic hand that is agile enough to play the Nintendo video game Super Mario Bros. and win.

Soft robotics is a field that creates flexible, inflatable robots powered by water or air instead of electricity. Soft robots are a very significant area of study because they have inherent safety and adaptability capabilities making them particularly interesting for applications, including prosthetics and biomedical devices. One main challenge for researchers in the field has been controlling the fluids that soft robots require for their motion. However, the team has now made a breakthrough with the ability to 3D print fully assembled soft robots with integrated fluidic circuits using a single step.

Previously each finger of a soft robotic hand needed to have its own control line, limiting portability and usefulness. Leveraging 3D printing allows the researchers to create a soft robotic hand with integrated fluidic transistors able to play the Nintendo based on one pressure input. The team's demonstration was an integrated fluidic circuit allowing the hand to operate in response to the strength of a single control input.

Low pressure causes the finger to press the Nintendo controller to make Mario walk, while higher pressure led to the character jumping. A program autonomously switches between off, low, medium, and high pressures allowing the robot hand to complete the first level of the video game in fewer than 90 seconds.

To overcome previous barriers in harnessing fluidic circuits, the team used PolyJet 3D Printing, likened to using a color printer, but with many layers of multi-material ink stacked on top of each other. Within a day, with minimal labor, researchers were able to go from pressing start on the 3D printer to having a complete soft robot including all the soft actuators, fluidic circuit elements, and body features.