A View from David Zax
A Robotic Hand for Bomb Disposal
Sometimes the most resilient designs are the ones that break easily.
Take a look at this new, cost-effective robotic hand that may soon be disposing of improvised explosive devices.
The robo-hand was developed by Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, and it’s significant for a few reasons. For one thing, it employs that wonderful and counterintuitive design principle: that sometimes, in order to build something resilient, you have to make it appear to be weak. In the same way that the most earthquake-resistant buildings are the ones that are built to sway, terrifyingly, like reeds, this robotic hand is designed to lose its fingers relatively easily. Better for the fingers to fall off rather than snap, argue its makers–then the fingers can be reattached more easily.
“Rather than breaking the hand, this configuration allows the user to recover very quickly, and fingers can easily be put back in their sockets,” said Sandia’s Curt Salisbury. “In addition, if a finger pops off, the robot can actually pick it up with the remaining fingers, move into position and resocket the finger by itself.”
The other innovation in this robotic hand is cost. Other robotic hands can run a quarter of a million dollars; this one should sell for $10 K or less. The consulting firm LUNAR helped Sandia bring the cost down.
“At this price point, the Sandia Hand has the potential to be a disruptive technology. Computers, calculators and cellphones became part of daily life and drastically changed how we do things when the price became affordable, ” Sandia’s Philip Heermann said. “This hand has the same potential.” Funded by DARPA, and co-developed with Stanford University, the hand will soon be put to work disposing bombs–work towards which you’d naturally much rather put a robotic hand than a human one. The hand is controlled remotely using a glove, and the hand itself has a gel-like layer that mimics human tissue.
What exactly is Sandia National Labs? It’s a “multi-program laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration,” per Sandia’s release.